Is Education Really about Data?

Flickr Image (LHC Tunnel) by Mario Alemi

I’m on another of those wonderful stretches at home catching up with family, trying to catch some movies and mostly spending every spare minute trying to get as much office work done as I can (some writing and work on Citation Machine) with no time to read and blog. 

But this post by David Wiley at Iterating Toward Openness was one of those sneaky reads that tricked me into wonder if I’m actually wrong about something.  In The LHC and Education, Wiley started with his interest in the Large Hadron Collider.  To say that the LHC was incredibly expensive is a sad understatement, and the machine does little more than generate data.  But with that data, scientists will map realms of the universe that most of us can’t even imagine, much less see.

Whiley loves data.  I love data.  But he switched contexts, lamenting that…

The data that we, educators, gather and utilize is all but garbage. What passes for data for practicing educators? An aggregate score in a column in a gradebook. A massive, course-grained rolling up of dozens or hundreds of items into a single, collapsed, almost meaningless score. “Test 2: 87.”

It’s one of the reasons that “data driven decision making” doesn’t make my heart flutter the way that it does for others.  It’s that, even in the best of situations, the data is scarce, shallow, grainy, and awfully expensive to collect — not to mention that the only people who can make much use of it are the data dudes that school sytems have been hiring over the past few years.

Then he totally chaffed my soul by suggesting (and rightly so from some points of view) that, “..using technology to deliver content is not improving the effectiveness of education…” but that another way of using tech might. Whiley continues,

I believe there is (another eay). I believe it so strongly that for the first time in several years I am opening a new line of research. I believe (and I fully admit that it is only a belief at this point) that using technology to capture, manage, and visualize educational data in support of teacher decision making has the potential to vastly improve the effectiveness of education.

I believe that I have written recently (Where Obama is Getting Education “Wrong”) that I think we should be teaching students to capture, manage, and visualize data as a basic working skill.  It seems to me that ushering it away to the central office to worry over data as an educational concern may actually be detrimental to the learning our students need to be engaged in.  Limited resources will cause us put undue emphasis on what can be easily measured at the expense of those important skills and knowledge that can’t.

But Whiley compellingly inspired in me a willingness to reconsider and I found my problem.  It isn’t that I object to using data to  inform better instructional decisions.  It’s that the data is so lousy — ..scarce, shallow, graining, and awfully expensive to collect.

What if all of our students were doing all of their content and content processing digitally.  What if all of the information transactions of learning, besides the most appropriately open conversations, was done with abundant, networked, and digital content.  That would be an enormously dense, rich, and seductively meaningful mass of data that could be analyzed and visualized in a wild variety of ways.  I’d be happy with that — especially if students became partners with us as self-analyzers and self-assessors, mastering their own skills as information artisans.

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Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.