How Big Data Is Changing The Educational Frontier
By Liz Elfman
Year by year, new technologies are changing the landscape for K-12 and higher education alike. To help clarify the landscape, 1776 and Pearson brought together a group of panelists to discuss the role of big data in education last night. Moderated by Diana Stepner, head of future technologies at Pearson, the panel featured thought leaders who highlighted the fact that data—and data analysis—is turning the future of education upside down.
Unfortunately for educators, the topic is more complicated than it sounds.
“The biggest problem with big data is that when people hear the term now in higher education, they’re desperate to play catch-up, and think they can be where everyone else in the market is within a month,” said Phil Ice, vice president of research and development at the American Public University System.
Fellow panelist David Yaskin, CEO and cofounder of Starfish Solutions, added that using big data effectively isn’t really about the specific technology. Rather, it’s more about institutional capacity—deploying technology in the right way, with the right personalization, so the computer can support the educational process most effectively.
Yet, even for the institutions that aren’t equipped just yet, big data is proving to be integral to education for a number of reasons, according to the panelists. Demographic changes such as the increase in public and private costs, along with the decrease in subsidization, have provoked the need for large-scale upheaval in academia.
Additionally, economic changes and increased public scrutiny in student loan policies have pressurized the field of higher education. For these reasons, institutions are looking to data to fix some of these deeply-rooted issues—and they’re looking to do it fast.
Still, frustration felt by institutions and tuition-paying students alike comes from the fact that the value of education isn’t always clear. As tuition rises, editorials all over the country are asking whether or not a college education actually is worth $60,000 a year. How do schools go about calculating the worth of an investment into various educational programs?
While schools shouldn’t look to data to provide them with all of the answers, it can at least equip them with quantifiable measures, said Jim Hermens, general manager at Blackboard Analytics. He noted that “big data shows that you can affect retention. Taking what you know about a student before he or she matriculates, and then using that info to plan his or her overall success, has now been proven to be an effective tactic.”
As it stands, though, branding discrepancies have created an unequal footing from the get-go for students who don’t fall into a narrow, privileged slice of the population.
“You have a situation where top-tier colleges are all branded at a certain level, and regardless of individual performance, those brands matter in terms of entry into the workforce,” said Andy West, vice president of analytics and adaptive learning technology with Pearson.
So where should school administrators look to solve those problems? Not where you might think, according to Ice.
“I wouldn’t look in education,” he said. “I’d look into marketing. The average retail store knows more about a box of cereal on their shelves than we know about our students. Looking at what it takes to get someone to buy something, and at what level you want them to buy, and the campaigns you present them with, is essentially no different than planning learning outcomes.”
Several key takeaways from the evening revolved around branding, whether it be the overblown importance of today’s best-branded institutions, or the necessity of other educational institutions to pay more attention to their own branding. Panelists agreed that separating the sales process from the implementation process, for any technology or data analytics tools, is a mistake. For example, experts in enrollment management, financial aid and marketing can make a big difference in helping educational institutions to use big data effectively.
Startups may find opportunities to contribute to the big data market in education by honing in on certain parts of the implementation process. While institutions struggle to adapt to changing technologies, tech-savvy startups may find opportunities to consult on best practices, testing, and implementation methodologies. Additionally, because there are such vast amounts of data, platforms that can present swaths of data in user-friendly manners will be in high demand.
Stuart Symington, product marketing manager with the Spanish-learning platform Fluencia, attended the panel. For him, the evening “illuminated how specific various institutions are able to get now, regarding the context in which they use big data,” he said. “It’s incredible: Given large sets of data, really specific problems can be solved by picking out key differences.”
Though the term “big data” can sound cold and impersonal, education experts hope it actually will be harnessed to make the educational process more inclusive.
“If you look at state assessment reports for K-12s, you can see how easy it is to use this data,” said panelist Barbara Dreyer, president and CEO of Connections Education. “The best states will have navigable websites that export data, highlight issues surrounding income, and in turn, impact higher ed as they start to get a clear picture on which students have difficulty succeeding.”
Liz Elfman is a D.C.-based writer, editor, and content strategist who tweets at @lizelfman.
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