Opinion
Infrastructure Commentary

Why Data Is Education’s ‘Killer App’

By Michael King — April 01, 2014 5 min read

I hear a lot about the search for the “killer app” in education. One side effect of the boom in consumer technology is everyone is an expert on video games. Note, for example, the incredible popularity of Angry Birds and Candy Crush. However, the latest game, gadget, or widget won’t drive success in the classroom or, ultimately, toward lifelong learning.

Education has experienced waves of enthusiasm over the latest technology as a transformational vehicle, from laptops to VCRs and, probably, the chalkboard. One underlying trend, however, is emerging from underneath the hype of monthly releases of new consumer technologies: the development of shared technology to manage and improve the learning process. Those districts that get this right will unlock the potential of human capital, possibly securing a brighter and more prosperous future for their communities.

A vision for education in the future must be built around the student. Indeed, a student-centric model should transcend the classroom, the individual institution, even the traditional segments of K-12 schools, higher education, and the workforce. It must empower students and help them create their own goals and their own learning pathways. It must also provide the right tools to support teachers, professors, parents, and others who interact with that learner along the way. Programs need to be built around a common view of the student. What matters even more than the technology is the data that emerges from its use.

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Data is the application that can transform education. Data can enable and support educators to personalize learning for individual students. Applications can use learning styles, interests, and other key pieces of information to target the areas in which students need the most help. By providing educators with greater insight into their students and their needs, data can also give teachers more time to spend on higher-value work with students. Even in larger school systems, data can help create a unique learning experience for each student. Wisely used, it can motivate the gifted and help ensure that underachievers don’t fall through the cracks.

Data can also empower students directly. We’re already seeing the emergence of new systems that support college and career pathways for students. The Montana Office of Public Instruction, for instance, unveiled a plan to deploy a big-data solution to better prepare the state’s K-12 students for college and the workforce. The project will facilitate collaboration by educators, parents, and young people to develop academic, financial, and future career plans that align with student aspirations using longitudinal data and analytics of transcript data.

Creating such learner-centric systems will connect the constituents in a region—schools, universities, students, employers, governments—into an integrated network that drives individual and societal success. A data-centric view of the learner must be at the core of this network, informing how we build our technology systems and how we plan to drive the potential for education transformation forward and ensure the success of every student. This view must be accompanied by an enterprise-class technology-delivery capability that can enable new applications to support students at different stages. This information can be delivered or administered in the form of smart digital content, via an online portal, or through the teachers in the classroom.

To do this, we need to address three major policy issues.

Student data must continue to be protected in this new environment and treated with as much respect and attention as our healthcare or financial data."

First, how do we safeguard the data? Many technology services are moving to the cloud. At IBM, we believe that private cloud-based shared services can be just as secure as on-premise systems. However, student data must continue to be protected in this new environment and treated with as much respect and attention as our health-care or financial data. Technology providers and institutions alike need to focus on this important issue and build security and identity protection into the foundation of any new system.

Second, who owns the data? Governments and schools must take the initial responsibility to fund and create the data-driven systems of the future. Ultimately, the student has the most to gain from these technologies. To that end, one solution could be to create a new model of interaction with students, allowing them to officially “opt in” as part of their daily interaction with their schools’ instructional portals, where their data, including grades and attendance, would be stored. The opt-in model could be dynamic so that students could control for privacy.

Finally, technology providers, curriculum providers, and schools alike will need to develop better models for integrating different tools, including tablets or cloud-based instructional materials. These “technology standards” differ from “curriculum standards,” but should create an environment in which different tools could exchange and access the same data.

The Internet was created by a framework of interoperable technology standards. A similar explosion of capability is possible with the right infrastructure for learning. Education has been slower than other industries to build common frameworks. For real progress to be made, support must come from schools and universities, students, and employers, with a key role held by government and public leaders.

This learner-centric vision must empower students, support educators, and drive long-term individual and societal success. At the core must be the data, along with a way to deliver the information so it can provide usable and helpful insights.

These are big tasks, but we should not shy away from their scope or their potential impact. Change will always be the persistent element education systems must be built around. Like the marketplace which must be responsive to the consumer, the education industry must be nimble enough to set its sights on embracing the pace of change and the opportunities it represents. If students’ classroom expectations are set by the latest mobile game or app, then the elusive “killer app"—the key to true education transformation—really is the data.

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 2014 edition of Education Week as Why Data Is Education’s ‘Killer App’

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