Audrey Watters describes “data” as one of the top trends of 2011 and predicts that it will be even more important in 2012. Big data has been a hot topic in the corporate world for about a year and half. Corporations realized that with the explosion of social media and willingness of the public to volunteer their private information when it comes to cyberspace, they have a massive amount of data collected. Not just any data, but specific data about potential customers and their preferences. As the line between education and business draws closer, our politicians (often times former business leaders) are realizing that if there is a formula to predict consumer spending habits, why can’t we predict student progress and/or success? Or the even scarier question, “why can’t we correlate students success with teacher performance?”
The problem with “big data” as an education data warehouse is that it cannot be easily used as a prediction engine. There are too many dynamic variables in the life of a student. For example, a model student in which the big data analytics formula would normally predict as a successful student could be experiencing a divorce situation at home which would affect his study habits. In essence the problem is not in mining the data that is available. The problem is what information is needed to determine student success? This following quote sums up this issue…
”It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – William Bruce Cameron (1963)
Watters points to an article on her blog about a study that was conducted on the virtual classroom. The study concluded that the virtual classroom students did not perform as well as their traditional school counterparts. Perhaps this can be attributed to the presence of a traditional school environment and instructor? In my opinion this is also a topic that is up for debate because the study does not disclose the prior history of the subjects academic performance. We don’t know if they have failed out of the traditional schools and enrolled in the virtual classrooms while this study was conducted. This proves the point that big data has its place in education for some analysis but it is certainly not ready to be used as a tool for predicting student success or teacher evaluation.