‘Ocean’ of Digital Data to Reshape Education, Pearson Report Predicts

By Benjamin Herold — March 19, 2014 3 min read
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A compelling vision of the data-driven future of K-12 schooling? Or a chilling description of a brave new educational world in which even students’ smallest actions are converted to digital data and used to build permanent “learner profiles”?

A new report from London- and New York City-based educational publishing powerhouse Pearson is likely to generate both reactions, depending on whom you ask.

Released this week, “Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education” is intended as “an aspirational vision of what success might look like” in the rapidly changing world of “big” educational data and personalized learning.

Report authors Kristen DiCerbo and John Behrens of Pearson’s Center for Digital Data, Analytics, and Adaptive Learning sketch out a vision in which end-of-year, summative tests of narrowly defined skills and content knowledge are replaced by a constant stream of digital data generated by “in vivo naturalistic tasks” that thoroughly blur the line between assessment and instruction.

Such data—generated from a variety of sources and activities, and focusing on students’ social connections and interactions, rather than just their isolated individual experiences—would be constantly tracked and used to update profiles that follow each student across classrooms, grades, and schools, helping facilitate more customized learning experiences for each.

“The devices and digital environments with which we interact are designed to record and store experiences, thereby creating a slowly rising ocean of digital data,” DiCerbo and Behrens write in the report. “We believe the ability to capture data from everyday formal and informal learning activity should fundamentally change how we think about education.”

Just as big data and analytics have transformed finance, insurance, retail, and professional sports, the report says, they will change education. Until recently, the authors write, data collection and storage was expensive, limited, and isolated, and students’ educational records were not portable, easy to share, or able to be quickly analyzed.

But the digital revolution has changed that reality, DiCerbo and Behrens contend. They argue that the abundance of increasingly fine-grained data available to educators “can help pinpoint the moments when learning occurs or a learner’s approach to a problem changes” and then be used to help tailor suggestions or recommendations to help each student’s learning continue.

What does that look like in practice?

Every keystroke, mouse-click, and move of the cursor that a student makes would flow into the “digital ocean,” alongside a stream of contextual information generated by sensors built into the devices and software the students are using. E-books, for example, might track not only how many pages a student reads, but how much time he or she spends on each page, which word definitions are looked up, what text is highlighted, the difficulty of the reading material in a given text, where the book is being read, and with whom the student is electronically discussing it.

“Rather than thinking of a multitude of individual, isolated items, the digital ocean encourages us to think about integrated activity.” DiCerbo and Behrens write.

DiCerbo has been at the forefront of early efforts to use data to personalize learning via her involvement in GlassLab, which recently released SimCityEDU, a learning and assessment game that makes use of the “digital ocean” and data-mining principles she and Behrens describe.

The authors acknowledge “potential sandbars” in this ocean. Privacy and ownership of data is a big concern, they say. Data security—which they define as the ability to keep students’ information hidden, and not just the abstract right to do so—might be an even bigger challenge.

Some are likely to take a much closer look at those issues. Concern among parents, advocates, educators, and policymakers about lax protection of students’ sensitive information is growing, fueled in part by revelations of both data breaches and data-mining practices of large online-educational-service providers like Google.

Nevertheless, “we are in the midst of a great social shift,” the authors conclude.

“For those of us who have emerged from the digital desert, the challenge is to move beyond the understanding of new technology as a means to acquire previous ends, and to reinvent our conceptualizations to take advantage of a digital-first-, data-first world.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.