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The Future Of Big Data And Analytics in K-12 Education

By Benjamin Herold Education Week, Bethesda, Md.


Imagine classrooms outfitted with cameras that run constantly, capturing each child's every facial expression, fidget, and social interaction, every day, all year long.

Then imagine on the ceilings of those rooms infrared cameras, documenting the objects that every student touches throughout the day, and microphones, recording every word that each person utters.

Picture now the children themselves wearing Fitbit-like devices that track everything from their heart rates to their time between meals. For about a quarter of the day, the students use Chromebooks and learning software that track their every click and keystroke.

What you're seeing is the future of K-12 education through the eyes of Max Ventilla, the CEO of AltSchool, a Bay Area startup that represents the most aggressive, far-reaching foray into the world of big data and analytics that the K-12 education sector has seen to date.

Eventually, Ventilla envisions AltSchool technology facilitating an exponential increase in the amount of information collected on students in school, all in service of expanding the hands-on, project-based model of learning in place at the six private school campuses the company currently operates in Silicon Valley and New York City.

He sees all those torrents of data flowing from the classroom into the cloud, where AltSchool engineers will have built systems for merging the disparate streams into a single river of information. AltSchool software and algorithms created by Silicon Valley's top developers and data scientists would then search the waters for patterns in each student's engagement level, moods, use of classroom resources, social habits, language and vocabulary use, attention span, academic performance, and more.

The resulting insights--say, that 6th graders perform better in math after exercising, or that the girls in a particular science class are bored because boys use the lab equipment more frequently, or that Johnny is using new vocabulary words in conversations with his friends--would be fed to teachers, parents, and students via AltSchool's digital learning platform and mobile app, which are currently being tested. The information would be accompanied by scheduling tips, recommendations for more gender-neutral science activities, and a playlist of assignments customized to each student.

How those suggestions are used, and whether they make a difference in how well each student learns, would also be tracked, creating a never-ending feedback loop of insights, experiments, recommendations, and product tweaks.

"We don't want to improve some aspects of what schools do. We want a different kind of universe in which schools can exist 30 years from now," said Ventilla, a 35-year-old Yale University graduate who previously worked as the head of personalization at online-services-giant Google.

For better or worse, it's not just pie in the sky talk.

"Analytics in K-12 Schools: Big Data, or Big Brother?"

Over the past decade, big data and analytics have slowly crept into the world of public education. Versions of the unobtrusive, real-time, embedded-in-everyday-activities collection of student-learning data now being pioneered by AltSchool and others are touted in the federal government's new National Education Technology Plan.

Many observers hope the next step is the type of systemwide change that has already transformed the financial sector, health care, consumer technology, retail sales, and professional sports, among other industries.

And while Ventilla's plans may seem grandiose, there are some good reasons to pay attention to what the company is doing.

For one, Ventilla has attracted top talent from his old employer, as well as leading companies in consumer technology and some of the top independent schools in the region. The AltSchool team has already prototyped and deployed some of the systems inside its own schools. And fueled by $133 million in venture capital from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others, AltSchool's 50-plus engineers, data scientists, and developers are designing tools that could be available to other schools by the 2018-19 school year.

Still, lots could go wrong. Among other barriers, AltSchool is almost certain to provoke a backlash from parents and privacy advocates who see in its plans the potential for an Orwellian surveillance nightmare, as well as potentially unethical experimentation on children.

But even if the company crashes and burns, some key observers hope its efforts will better illuminate the possibilities and pitfalls confronting a sector still wrestling with the questions of whether and how to embrace analytics.

"There are a multitude of entrepreneurs who are building learning experiences based on how Google thinks about the world, that you can leverage data in ways that produce beneficial outcomes," said Robert J. Hutter, a managing partner at Learn Capital, a venture-capital firm that has invested in AltSchool and other companies. "The hope is that those experiments will be understood and appropriated by leaders in K-12."

What Are Big Data and Analytics?

The term "big data" is generally used to describe data sets so large they must be analyzed by computers. Usually, the purpose is to find patterns and connections relating to human behavior and how complex systems function.

Analytics generally refers to the process of collecting such data, conducting those analyses, generating corresponding insights, and using that new information to make (what proponents hope will be) smarter decisions.

"Digital Tools Evolving to Track Students' Emotions, Mindsets"

For years, public schools and ed-tech companies have experimented with both, usually with two goals in mind: to better personalize instruction, by customizing the learning experience to each student's individual skills, abilities, and preferences; and to facilitate more data-driven operational decisions.

Inside school systems, advances have been made. It's now common, for example, for classrooms to use learning software and digital games that generate extensive data that can be mined for evidence of student learning. At the macro level, districts routinely analyze large data sets containing information on students' academic performance, attendance patterns, and even involvement with other public agencies. The results are used to predict which students are likely to become disengaged or drop out of school, then to intervene accordingly, among other purposes.

In the ed-tech industry, meanwhile, big data and analytics are everywhere. Companies ranging from Khan Academy to Pearson collect and analyze reams of information on how millions of students interact with digital content. Other companies promise to help district administrators use big data to predict everything from which candidates for teaching jobs are likely to have the biggest impact on student-test scores to where population growth will require that new school buildings be built in the future.

But experts say such initiatives have mostly resulted in small pockets of innovation or incremental shifts to existing practices, rather than systemic transformation.

One big reason: Big chunks of the data currently in use are either stored on paper or in teachers' heads. And much of the digital information in use is generated via students' on-screen and online activity, which even those in the ed-tech world acknowledge can capture only a limited slice of what constitutes real learning.

Other barriers exist, too. Even when new technologies have been introduced into classrooms, teachers have been slow to change the ways they teach. Districts have struggled for years to integrate data housed in separate silos. The education sector is embroiled in debates over how student information should be appropriately collected, shared, and used.

The net result is that school officials often settle for using technology to meet basic compliance requirements, said Jeff Wayman, a former educational researcher at Johns Hopkins University who now consults with districts on effective data systems. "Technology got schools to a point where they can get done the things that have to get done," Wayman said. "But in their heart of hearts, I think a lot of developers would say the technology is so much more powerful than how it's being used."

Analytics in Professional Sports, Other Industries

Other industries have found themselves in analogous positions.

Take, for example, professional sports, including the National Basketball Association.

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