Data collection--good or evil in the classroom?

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It's true, big data is a big thing in education these days. Supporters say it is the ideal way to optimize teaching. Detractors say it can unfairly bar some students from a college education, give advertisers too much access to kids and provide the means for unscrupulous characters to manipulate young minds. Who is right? Is big data in the classroom a good thing or a bad thing?

Actually both camps are correct. Big data use in education is a two edge letter opener; one side opens the envelope of opportunity, the other draws blood from little fingers.

Jordan Shapiro, an academic who teaches in Temple University's Intellectual Heritage Department, penned an insightful post in Forbes on the dual nature of big data in education and the related fears, both unfounded and proven.

Shapiro also shares highlights of discussions at The Student Privacy Zone Summit, hosted by Common Sense Media and The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. He noted that "U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that 'personal data in education should be used only for educational purposes, not to sell snacks or video games' and Senator Edward J. Markey said it is our job to 'ensure we animate tech with the human values we've inherited.'"

That sounds all well and good to most parental ears, but Shapiro says not so fast.

"I couldn't help but think about the slippery slope we're sledding on when we start making value judgments about products that are allowed into our school districts because they're 'educational' and the ones that are not. The line between for-profit snack chips and for-profit publishing seems rather arbitrary to me."

The graying of formerly distinct lines between, well everything, is much of the rub in big data projects of every kind inside and outside of education. We can't even determine the basics in big data, such as who owns the data--which makes it darn difficult to decide what to protect from whom.

On the flipside of that are the questions we've always struggled with and hope that big data might provide the insights for a final answer to form. Unfortunately, some of those questions cannot be answered by big data. Seriously, they can't. Some answers are simply a human call.

"This has always been the question for educators, the tension of our craft," writes Shapiro. "Is it our job to mold people into good citizens that abide by collective social conventions? Or to free individuals so they can think for themselves?"

Some questions will always perplex us, no matter what technological wizardry we have at our disposal.

For more:
- see the Forbes post

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