Big Data: Who Really Benefits?

Learning and Behavioural Sciences March 24, 2014

Several years ago, my mother gave me a large manilla envelope full of my old schoolwork — drawings and writings and photos from as far back as preschool — some projects I remembered making, many I didn’t. Mostly the envelope contained administrative records — my report cards, various certificates of accomplishment, some ribbons. 

That envelope was obviously a low­tech way to collect, store, and eventually share with me my school records. It was undoubtedly my mother’s curation of “what counts” as my education history. As such, it was a reflection of proud parenting and of schooling in a pre­digital age.

I think the manilla envelope makes for an interesting artifact as we think about education data today.

What happens now that schoolwork is increasingly “born digital”? Is there a virtual equivalent to that manila envelope of mine? What would it contain? Grades? Test scores? Pictures a student has drawn? Poems she or he has written? Every assignment completed? After all, digital storage becoming increasingly cheap. Why not keep everything? And not just every document or project a student has ever created: all the metadata too. Metadata about every educational video a student has watched — all the pauses, rewinds, fast forwards. The dates. The time on a website. The pages read in digital texts. Every note taken. Every mouse click.

“By collecting every click, homework submission, quiz and forum note from tens of thousands of students,”TED describes Coursera founder Daphne Koller’s talk, MOOCs have become “a data mine that offers a new way to study learning.”

The collection that my mother created of my education record in that manilla envelope clearly served a very different purpose than data mining. It was something for me to look back on years later, something to reflect upon. But I think it’s worth asking: How might a digital school record change how we think about ourselves — not just years later, when we look nostalgically back on our school years, but in real­time?

How might a digital school record -­­ one that capture every bit of student data ­­- shape a student’s (and parents’ and teachers’) decision making? Will a student be less likely to experiment, to take risks, to make mistakes, to doodle in the margins, to write poems, knowing everything is being tracked and recorded?

The claims made about why we’d want to track everything and what we’ll be able to glean from all this student data being collected are pretty large. The promise: that all this data that students create, that software can now track, and that engineers and educators and administrators can analyze will bring about a more “personalized,” a more responsive, a more efficient school system. Higher test scores. Better class and college completion rates.

But much of these claims about education data remain unproven. Perhaps some time in the future, once we amass enough data, we will be able to make some interesting observations and predictions about students. Perhaps. But in the meantime, schools and companies are collecting and mining students’ data. Thanks to our increasing computer usage for teaching and learning, we are collecting incredible amounts of data.

“Every click, homework submission, quiz and forum note” ­­ do students *own* that data? Do they control *any* of it? Can they access it? Download it? Review it? Are students even aware that this data is being collected? Are they asked for their consent before it’s shared? Can they export it from the various technology products they use and import into their own “manilla envelope”?

In many cases, the answer is no.

Students’ data is being created in apps, with software, on websites in which they can’t actually get their data out. At the end of the course, at the end of the semester, and sometimes, at the end of a startup’s existence, students lose access to what they’ve created, what they’ve done. There is nothing for that manilla envelope. The data still exists, of course, but it remains in the hands of the technology, not in the hands of the learner.

And despite all the hype about educational data­mining, big data, and learning analytics, if students do not own and do not control their data, then I fear that data and analytics will be something we do *to* students, rather than do *for* them or do *with* them. Or — and here’s a radical notion — that we *enable students to do for themselves*.

That means we must ask critical and sometimes difficult questions about who benefits from all this educational data mining. Certainly technology companies, selling the hype and their wares to schools, stand to benefit. If learning analytics can boost completion rates, then schools will benefit. But what if, in doing so, all this value is extracted from students and little changes in terms of how we think about their control and their ownership of their own data ­­ what if there’s nothing for their manilla envelope?