While the term "Big Data" has been around for a while now, of late it is becoming increasingly associated with education, and in particular, educational technology. The days of chalkboards and overhead projectors have come and gone and are now being replaced by iPads and smartboards. At the same time, the Cloud, mobile technology, and even apps are beginning to shape the future of modern education.

Those charting the future of educational initiatives realize that data has changed not only the way people shop, but also the way in which they think. Consequently, as the world around us becomes more data-driven, big data is affecting everything from teacher accountability to learning spaces.

Used in reference to massive amounts of data collected by an organization, big data has become a preferred method for companies to uncover the latest trends in consumer behavior and then utilize that information to modify services and products so that they are more appealing to consumers. Now, its applications extend beyond consumer analysis, and according to educational expert Dr. Jason Ohler, big data is one of the top technological trends that will transform education in the future, as well as expand investment opportunities. (For some insights into the investment opportunities being created by big data, see article: The Big Play In Big Data.)

Applying Big Data to Education

As just mentioned, the collection and analysis of big data are making inroads in the education field, although in the past such techniques were primarily used to understand consumers. Educational institutions are now collecting data on students across the nation, including aptitude and test scores, in order to improve teaching strategies and learn how to better engage students. (To read about the role education plays within an economy, see article: How Education And Training Affect The Economy.)

In what has become known as the data-driven classroom, the process of collecting and analyzing the work of students in a digital manner has become an integral component in how school systems both track and report student performance. This is occurring not just at the district level, but also on a state, and even federal level. In fact, digital data collection and analysis form a core component of standardized testing.

On a classroom level, data and digital curricula have even had an effect on the way that teachers instruct and students learn. For instance, data has made a difference in the way teachers grade the work of students and assign scores. MasteryConnect, for instance, offers a variety of different features, including a bubble-sheet assessment app that allows teachers to give assessments that were created on a mobile device or tablet. In addition, teachers can automatically export scores and track progress, a feature that could be beneficial for tracking student progress according to specifically designed parameters, such as state standards and even Common Core.

The introduction of big data into the classroom has also paved the way for learning that is more personalized and adaptive. An increasing number of companies specializing in educational technology, such as Knewton, are now creating digital courses that rely on big data and predictive analytics to expand what students learn and how they learn it. For instance, Knewton, billed as an adaptive learning infrastructure, helps teachers to identify what a student is not mastering and target lesson plan modules to help students master those areas.

The collection and analysis of such data could soon become big business. The Association of Educators reports that ConnectEDU, a tech company, is already in the process of establishing a digital teaching and learning platform to track the progress of students in multiple schools. Insights gained from the data collected on the platform could then be used to assist teachers in customizing their resources and instruction methods with the end goal of boosting student engagement.

Also, according to Campus Technology, McGraw-Hill, a leader in textbook publishing, has launched an adaptive learning system that would track students' question-answer sessions. The system would then present appropriate learning resources, based on the questions the students are not able to answer.

Local school districts have been quick to pick up on the opportunities presented by big data. The Brookings Institution reports that in Beaverton, Oregon, the local school district utilizes a data warehousing system alongside a student information system in order to view a wide swath of student information in real-time, including students' disciplinary profiles, demographics, and their excused and unexcused absences. The school district can even use the specialized information system to drill metrics down to the individual level in order to design customized interventions.

Even the United States government has jumped on the big data bandwagon and applied it to the education sector. The national dashboard employed by the United States Department of Education compiles information from public school systems across the country for the purpose of measuring whether the country will meet its 2020 goals. The indicators measured by the dashboard include the percentage of individuals within a specified age group who have completed an Associate's degree or higher, the number of 3-and 4-year olds who are enrolled in preschool, the number of 18-to 24-year-olds enrolled in colleges and universities, and reading and math proficiency for 4th graders.

The amount of data now generated by schools has increased to such a degree that many public school systems are struggling under its weight. In 2012, an innovative solution for helping school systems swamped by data was devised. inBloom, a computer system created for storing educational data, was backed by a  $100 million investment from the Gates and Carnegie foundations. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is currently among the most active investors in educational technology. While inBloom eventually succumbed to concerns over student privacy, its short lifespan does underscore the evolving need for school districts to manage the massive amounts of data generated in the education sector. (To read more about philanthropic organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, see article: The Five Wealthiest Private Foundations.)

The Bottom Line

As more companies within the education tech field begin to focus their energies on the application of big data to education, the marriage between education and big data becomes more imminent.  Big data, just as it has transformed the way in which companies approach relevant business issues, is poised to transform education and the technology behind it. Providers of data management services and technologies aimed at the education sector will have tremendous opportunities moving forward. Recently, MyOnlineSchool announced that it had received a new round of seed funding of $678,000 from a new group of investors. The funding will be used for accelerating production of the firm's hobbyist and vocational courses as well as enhancing the design of the company's responsive virtual classrooms, according to NewsFactor. MyOnlineSchool will certainly not be the last blend of technology and education to attract investors, as data, technology, and education continue to merge.


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