An education fix for the ages

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Fixing the schools has been a check box in every politician's stump speech since Thomas Jefferson called for public education in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1785, but never saw it happen. In Virginia, the idea didn't take hold until after the Civil War.

The last couple of decades have focused on technology as the savior of education. The results are not yet in, but Bill Gates, philanthropist and former founder of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), thinks big data just might turn the tide.

In National Journal this week, Dana Goldstein covered Gates' mission to apply the data-gathering techniques he has used to address social, health, and economic problems around the world, to education. His foundation is expected to devote increasing resources to changing the way colleges are ranked. He wishes to rank colleges by how aggressively they recruit underperforming students, provide them with a rigorous education, and then place them in remunerative careers. He said that real success in higher education means accepting, for example, a student with a combined SAT score of 600 and seeing them through to jobs that pay $100,000.

Gates also wants to rank teachers differently and base that on how well their graduates perform in the classroom. These changes will require a lot of data and analysis. And it isn't just looking at standardized test scores, but combining them with classroom evaluations of teachers and finding new ways of identifying evidence of student learning.

While Gates and his foundation concentrate on ways to evaluate success and best practices for teachers, others are looking at big data as a way to personalize curricula and motivate students.

In a December article for the Association of Educational Publishers, Deb Delisle, assistant secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, called big data the rocket fuel for personalized learning, as education shifts to thinking of learning as a 24/7 endeavor. Teachers need to tune into students' individual interests to get them excited about learning, and resources need to be available that offer teachers that flexibility, she said. She added that publishers and organizations need to bundle content, including open source materials, to create challenging and stimulating resources.

Delisle's other suggestion was that schools and publishers stop trying to control the technology students use and accept it as the way students will be accessing information.

Over the last decade or so, student learning data has become an important issue, but teachers are not all equipped to leverage it. In a separate AEP article, Larry Berger, founder and executive chairman of Wireless Generation, shared a business case on how big data can be used to drive education programs.

His company claims to have used the data from a reading intervention program after 10 days to "extract a set of rules, identify which skills go together, which results triggered the need for which lessons, and what worked (and didn't work) for each student." The rules were encoded into software for generating lesson plans based on the assessed data and on an ongoing basis student progress could be analyzed. Ultimately, they set up a model where the engine learns on its own what rules work for which students and what adjustments need to be made.

Berger said many current academic theories are not working in the classroom and that big data helps publishers and educators understand how learning is happening with the individual student.

In the education section of the Huffington Post in November, Sean Devine, CEO of CourseSmart, said higher education can be positively impacted by big data, but that "like many other industries, we are just beginning to grasp the implications and learn how to effectively utilize it to improve the quality of higher learning."

Devine said that improving graduation rates is in the financial interest of both the student and the institution, and that some institutions have begun to use data and analytics to determine problem areas and identify at-risk students. He cited Purdue's University's Course Signals, and Austin Peay State University's Degree Compass as two programs that use predictive analytics to forecast and ensure students stay on track.

In Inside Higher Ed this week, Steve Kolowich said that "in many college classrooms, especially the largest ones, attempting to gauge how well students are absorbing new concepts as they are being taught still involves a combination of divination and educated guesswork. For all their aptitude and credentials, college professors cannot read minds."

Or can they? Some large universities are able to gauge student comprehension as they are absorbing a lesson using data-driven teaching. Arizona State University has a program designed to turn its classrooms into laboratories for technology-abetted "adaptive learning", which gives instructors real-time intelligence on how well each of their students is getting each concept.

For more:
- see the Inside Higher Ed article

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