This article is based on an excerpt of  Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Kenneth Cukier.

Big Data in Education

What if data collected during your journey through education was collected and stored? What if the records would forever show that you had to take a class to catch up on math skills in college? Or even already in school? Universities could potentially tap into this data and optimize their admissions so as to attempt to inflate the later grades at graduation.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, and Kenneth Cukier, Data journalist at The Economist, consider this to be a perfectly plausible future scenario. Already today they register calls for a more transparent usage of a student’s transcript. Adaptive learning algorithms, for example, could then both identify the weaker students and then induce them to quit early on to improve later overall performance.

The value Big Data in education may bear

Clearly there are many advantages to adding a quantifiable element to education, giving both the student and their teacher tools to more specifically improve their performance. But for every advantage there are also risks.

For fear that their children’s data would be saved forever, parents managed to halt a Gates Foundation backed initiative to store educational data in six out of nine states chosen for an initial launch. Since big data in education could also include information on sick days, visits to the counselor or even the depth of understanding reached for a given book, the ability to recall specifics on all these metrics bears a threatening potential for many. The inability to shed our past thus bears dangers because it prevents us from outgrowing past mistakes that were part of our learning experiences: no aspect of our development would be under the radar anymore.

 Protecting the student’s privacy

In many countries privacy protection laws exist specifically to prevent any such nasty surprises. The idea is that creators of data could opt-in to the positive uses of collecting this data (such as individualized learning) without the negative consequences. Unfortunately the true allure behind Big Data is the secondary use of gathered information: the possibility to find some meaning in data that was collected for completely different purposes. As a result, any opt-in that was consented to is hardly able to foresee the uses that the collected data will eventually have.

In response to this fear the EU and the US have already started discussing the possible ways of placing the burden of protecting the data collected on individuals on those wishing to use it for secondary or tertiary purposes. The onus of preventing any misuse of the data would therefore be on whoever collected and stored it.

The ultimate question is how the tradeoff between the dangers and the opportunities Big Data in education can bring can be navigated. Many positive examples of improvals in the individual learning experience already exist. At the University of Arizona implementing a software designed to help students graduate increased the percentage of students passing onto their next years of studies from 77% to 84%. More examples of this nature are most certainly desirable but they should not move us into a direction where our past rather than our will determines our future.

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