Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better – the Impact of Small Data in Education

Emerging Technologies and Edtech October 12, 2017

Should I be worried that Amazon seems to know more about me than I do? Amazon definitely seems to know what I need to buy before I know that I need it. Should I be worried that Facebook seems to think it can manage my social circle better than I can? It decides which friends I should prioritise and interact with. Both these examples are applications of Big Data in action. Big Data is now as pervasive in our lives as George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ was predicted to be – just better informed!

Big Data in education is exponentially growing in significance, for example the availability of huge amounts of student data, learning analytics, dashboards measuring every metric you could want and even some you don’t. However, the headline-grabbing nature of Big Data in education is overshadowing the paradigm shifts happening at the low-tech end of the data scale – the ‘small data’ end.

Auto-marking or real-time feedback is when learners complete a quiz or exercise using software (which can be on or offline). The learners ‘submit’ their answers (by clicking) and as if by magic their results appear. This immediate feedback of a learner’s results might seem so low-tech given what is possible now. It is often not viewed as earth shaking – except it is! Real-time feedback, ‘small data’ as I call it, is changing classrooms even in challenging contexts and having an impact on learning and teaching far wider than ever anticipated.

How? Imagine a class of 40 to 50 learners aged around eleven years old. They have just finished a Maths exercise. With the best will in the world, the teacher is not going to be able to immediately mark all 45 learners’ books. Even swapping and marking take time and with a class of that size it would be a good test of classroom management. It’s a common human desire to want to know ‘How did I do?’ on completion of an activity, learners have the same desire. We expect immediate answers from Google, real-time updates from Twitter, FaceTime conversations anytime and anywhere. It is only natural that learners are conditioned to expect an immediate answer to ‘How did I do on this activity?’ The use of auto-marking software provides this much needed, individual, real-time response.

The impact of this small data can be seen in the excitement of learners when they press ‘submit’, that spontaneous fist pump when they see how they have done, ‘Yes I did have it right!’ Learners are so much more engaged with their score when they receive it while they can still remember what they answered, or even more importantly remember why they answered like that. Primary age learners can have a (very) limited concentration span for any given activity. Immediate feedback extends that concentration span.

One of the more elusive but crucial goals in a classroom is that of ownership or agency by learners. That realisation that ‘this is MY work’, ‘I want to see how I can do better/learn more/develop’. Without agency, learning is just a constant battle of wills! As one teacher said, “You can only crack something if the other party is interested”. Interestingly in the schools we are supporting, we are seeing that small data is an unexpected driver of agency in learners and not just with the motivated cohort of learners. The immediacy of the feedback is igniting sparks in learners with poor literacy skills, learners who had given up at schools or low-achieving learners. Learners of all abilities and engagement levels are increasingly ‘buying in’ to their learning process. The focus of learning activities is moving from ‘let me just finish this exercise and go for break’ to ‘how did I do and how can I improve?’

EdTech is at its most powerful when its impact moves beyond accessibility or time and labour saving, into empowering learners to grow through ways that were previously unavailable to them. Real-time feedback or small data is doing just this. Small data is engaging, challenging and stimulating learners in some of the most challenging contexts; it is changing lives. Big isn’t necessarily better.