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Big data and its impact on the classroom

April 6, 2021

Big data, which essentially describes a large volume of data, is not a new term. It’s not even the amount of data that’s important, rather what organizations do with the data that matters. In recent years, K-12 education has begun to collect and analyze greater amounts of data on everything from attendance patterns to which search terms students are using.

Big data can have a big impact on the classroom—and on teachers and students. Used thoughtfully, data can improve instruction, monitor students’ progress, facilitate communication with parents, and even keep kids safe online.

While schools need to consider privacy and ensure informed consent to the collection of student data, big data is here to stay. Here’s how school districts are collecting and using student data, and the impact it is having in the classroom.

How big data can improve attendance and lower drop-out rates

Teachers and school districts have always collected data. Attendance records and report cards are nothing new. But today, this data can be collected and aggregated across a school or even a school district in new, exciting ways.

Many schools now collect and use student data to track their performance, improve instruction, inform parents on their child’s progress, and track attendance. On an individual or classroom level, this data is useful, but at scale, it becomes big data, and it becomes powerful.

Consider the case of Grand Rapids Public Schools. As NPR reported, the school district crunched the numbers to discover that 40% of students were chronically absent. The district embarked on a year-long effort to tackle absenteeism in traditional ways; calling home, rewarding perfect attendance, and other similar measures.

These efforts didn’t move the dial. So the school district tried something else. They shared their absenteeism data with the community. Business owners, after-school programs, churches and other organizations in the community were given stats on absenteeism in the school district. Eight-foot poster boards with the numbers appeared in public schools. As the community became aware of the problem, they suggested solutions. The release of the district’s absenteeism data started a series of events that ultimately cut absenteeism in half.

In a similar case, Tacoma Public Schools raised its graduation rate from 55% to 85% after implementing a world-class data system that used predictive analytics to identify patterns of disengagement. With the system, teachers could see how students were performing, and understand how factors such as attendance, discipline and different behaviors affected their achievement.

These powerful stories only scratch the surface of what big data can accomplish in education. By analyzing how thousands or even millions of students interact with digital content, education publishers can improve the quality of educational materials. School districts can use population growth models to determine where new school buildings will need to be built in the future. And predictive analytics can be used to monitor and analyze online student behavior to suggest which students may be at risk of abuse or self-harm.

Addressing concerns to improve student learning and well-being

Despite the clear benefits of big data in the classroom, experts caution that data can’t replace skilled, attentive teachers.

“Even in classrooms with the latest adaptive learning technology, an expert teachers’ professional intuition is still the best way to understand and address the myriad cognitive, non-cognitive, social, emotional, and academic factors that affect students’ achievement,” says Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow at the Search Institute.

There is also the risk of implementing tech and collecting data that doesn’t meaningfully help teachers or students. A 2015 study found that more than two-thirds of teachers did not feel that the data and tools they used were effective in improving instruction or helping students.

Schools need to ensure that the data they collect and analyze truly supports learning in the classroom. Data must be tied to clear learning outcomes, and not collected for collection’s sake.

In a 2012 issue brief on using data in education, the U.S. Department of Education made recommendations to educators and school administrators that remain relevant today:

  • Develop a culture of using data for making instructional decisions.
  • Involve IT departments in planning for data collection and use.
  • Be smart data consumers who ask critical questions about commercial offerings and create demand for the most useful features and uses.
  • Start with focused areas where data will help, show success, and then expand to new areas.
  • Help align state policies with technical requirements for online learning systems.
  • Communicate with students and parents about where the data come from and how the data is used.

Seven years after the Department of Education wrote these guidelines, too few schools tell parents how their children’s data is being used. And as the Guardian has reported, parents and students don’t like this lack of transparency.

shutterstock_147597611Felix, a 12-year-old student, told the Guardian he was frustrated that his school “doesn’t really [educate] students on what is OK and what is not OK. They don’t make it clear when they are tracking you, or not, or what platforms they track you on…. Basically, I don’t want them to throw out all of their powers over us, but to tell us which platform they’re monitoring regularly.”

In the wake of what is being called the “techlash,” people are more concerned with how their data is collected and used. School districts should address these concerns head-on, and inform parents of how and why data is being collected and used.

Again, it is easier to provide a rationale for the use of data when it has been clearly and intentionally linked to learning outcomes or student well-being. Creating clear data privacy plans, as we’ve discussed before, can help put parents’ minds at ease and ensure that student data is collected, used and stored appropriately and safely.

If schools are successful in demonstrating the value of collecting data to improve student well-being, there is no limit to how technology can support students. Already, AI-enabled chatbots are being used to support university students’ well-being by helping them manage stress and improve their motivation to study.

In the K-12 sector, with tools such as Linewize’s School Manager, data from student online behavior can be collected, which in turn allows School Admin to identify early indicators of self-harm or that a student may be involved in school violence or cyberbullying. This allows school districts to proactively counsel students who are feeling sad, stressed, or have mental health issues.

It’s not a hard case to make—big data has already been shown to reduce absenteeism rates, improve graduation rates, support teacher instruction, facilitate better parent-teacher communication, and keep kids safe. Used thoughtfully and in support of learning objectives, big data is making the classroom a better place.

To learn more about using tech and data in the classroom, get in touch with Linewize today.


Topics: Big Data, Digital Learning

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