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Big Data Has Come to Education: Why Openness Must Come Next

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Today in San Diego, Calif., teachers, educational leaders and companies in the education industry from around the world will gather at the annual International Society for Technology in Education conference to explore just how technology can and is being used to improve elementary and secondary education. And while many different types of technology -- from cloud-based curricula to adaptive learning systems to large interactive screens -- will be on display, there's one important trait that almost all of them share: the ability to collect and analyze vast amounts of student data.

We can see data's ability to revolutionize industries and areas of our lives every day. Just open iTunes and glance at your personalized music recommendations, pick up a copy of Moneyball and learn how data has changed America's pastime, or check your smartphone for the latest deals in your neighborhood. Only recently, however, has data begin to change how we approach K-12 education, a trend that's been made possible by the increasing presence of technology in our classrooms.

It's certainly true that the best teachers have done a remarkable job of managing data innately, from contextualizing student test scores to using more informal assessments, such as projects, presentations or observations of behavior. However, these processes have always been difficult and hard to scale. Now, thanks to technology, particularly digital assessments and adaptive learning systems, a new door has opened to gather data in an ever-expanding number of areas and efficiently put it to use on a large scale to drive a meaningful improvement in learning.

Why is data so valuable in education? For one, it will advance us beyond the primarily aged-based system of educational advancement that has been in place for much of the past century. By generating and enabling access to consistent streams of data from different parts of the classroom, we are no longer limited to simply knowing what students know at a point in time -- we can now get a sense of when and how they learned it and how likely they are to retain and be able to apply that knowledge. This type of insight into learning is invaluable as we think about designing and implementing new tools and approaches to improve educational performance.

With data-driven insights in hand (or on tablet), educators are provided the information to tailor their instruction based on the knowledge, skills, and learning styles of students in each classroom. Increased access to data also provides parents with a clearer picture of their child's academic performance, enabling them to direct their efforts to help their child or children improve areas of weakness and reinforce areas of strength. When students receive immediate, specific feedback on their performance, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to drive their own learning. This type of empowerment is critical to improving student performance.

However, bits and bytes in and of themselves are not a solution, and it brings along with it a unique set of challenges. Student privacy and security must always be our first priority, and our ability to effectively analyze and interpret data is critical to its usefulness. But recently another, more subtle challenge has become clear: making sure that this data can be clearly, safely, and efficiently communicated across the classroom.

This might seem like an abstract concept, allow me to provide a couple of scenarios to show why this issue is so important.

In Classroom 1, a teacher poses a geometry question on the classroom projector. The students answer the question on their devices, which vary in make, model and operating system (thanks to the school's "bring your own device" policy). Some of those devices run the application smoothly, others are slow leaving students playing catch-up and yet others crash. Fast forward to the end of the year, after students have completed dozens of quizzes using a handful of applications from different providers. The teacher can't easily use the data when preparing to teach the following year's students geometry class. The teachers taking in those students from last year's geometry class also can't refer to it. And because each piece of technology within the school uses its own reporting system, results are never shared with students or parents; or if they are, they are so complicated and disjointed that it's hard for parents to make sense of them.

In Classroom 2, the same teacher poses the same question. The students answer -- again, on different devices. The new reporting system, interoperable with all devices and applications, makes available a consistent, integrated, dataset which the teacher can easily share with parents or other teachers at the school. Even if the school elects to switch systems at the end of the year, the old system's data can easily be read by the new system, so the data is preserved for teachers -- and the student -- throughout that student's academic career, even if that student moves up or transfers to a new school. This future is possible today with open learning data standards and APIs.

As the use of technology in K-12 classrooms continues to proliferate, we must pay more attention to how these technologies and systems communicate with one another, and those of us creating this technology must take it upon ourselves to make sure that we are providing schools with solutions that embrace the type of openness that is in the best interests of schools, parents, and students. With so much great technology available and so much change happening within education, it is a virtual certainty that schools will be using technology that comes from multiple sources -- and a likelihood that these sources will change fairly often. We must develop applications and tools that feature modularity, flexibility and openness to account for this.

Fortunately, some are already recognizing this need. The Gates Foundation has undertaken a number of initiatives in favor of data openness and interoperability. Samsung followed this concept with its recently launched Samsung Smart School, which enables instant screen sharing between the e-board and their students' devices. McGraw-Hill had a similar idea in mind last summer when we launched MH Campus, an open platform that allows colleges to integrate our content and course solutions with any learning management system.

However, for every new piece of technology that embraces openness, there are a dozen that are completely walled off. I feel confident in saying that for any piece of technology to become a success it will have to adhere to these principles, but we should not leave it up to the market to influence our decisions. We should come together to work toward this goal because it's the right thing to do for our students and our schools.

With the rise of big data in education well underway, openness and interoperability will become the next big need in education. I invite government, educational organizations, think tanks and learning companies everywhere to join McGraw-Hill Education to focus on this issue at this week's ISTE conference and well into the future.