Education in a World Where Every Action is a Data Point

Remember the classic scene from Dead Poet’s Society where the new teacher, John Keating, instructs the students to rip pages out of the poetry text? He offers the students a different view of poetry, one that invites people to feel instead of analyze. There is something to be said for appreciating the forest and not just chopping it down into discrete pieces that are more easily quantified. At the same time, we are in an increasingly data-driven world, and I don’t expect to see it disappear from the field of education anytime soon. So, what are we to do?

people as data vennIn the Walking Dead of Higher Education, a software vendor wrote an article about the need for more satisfactory ways of approaching assessment in higher education. He contends that higher education administrators are having trouble proving the value of a college degree because they don’t have effective ways to measure what students are learning. This is not a new notion. In fact, it is a mantra in our increasingly data-driven world. We see the drive for more data-driven decision-making in everything from political campaigns to marketing plans, church growth strategies to public health initiatives, crime prevention efforts to assessment of organizational effectiveness. This is the expected progression of living in an increasingly digital and connected world. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the first wave of the digital era was about increased access to information through the Internet. The second wave was the discovery that it is the connections, communities and social interactions that have some of the most transformational possibilities in the digital age. Now, in this third wave, we see the convergence of the first two waves (These are not entirely distinct. There are social and analytic elements already in the first wave). Now we have increased access to more information than we ever imagined, but every one of our actions (social and otherwise) is becoming part of that information, data points to mine and analyze for meaning, and used to achieve business, educational or other goals.

When I first understood that Google was mainly an advertising company, I had a great illustration of this new age. I took people to Google, conducted a random search and then we looked at the results. What do you see? Most of us now get the general idea. The first results to show up are paid ads. What is Google selling? They are selling you, based upon data about you, data suggesting that there is a possible match between who you are, what you want or might want, and what others are selling. The consumer becomes the product being sold via a business-to-business interaction between Google and another company. This is very old news, but this concept, evident in many other online business strategies since the 1990s, illustrates the idea that our behavior becomes valuable data.

Now schools and education vendors are increasingly involved in similar practices. Education companies are coming to Universities and P-12 schools, offering ways to collect, track, analyze, and extract meaningful insights from student data, not just student performance on tests and key assignments, but thousands of other potential data points. Some are coming to schools that already have a massive collection of dust-covered student data, and companies are showing them the stories that these data tell, and how these stories are important for the work of the school. Others are starting at the beginning, offering new ways to collect data that have never been collected before, let alone analyzed.

I’ve written about adaptive software before, even providing a simple visual to illustrate the feedback loops involved with such software. Adaptive software is an example of how these data are being used on the micro level to create learning experiences where student performance and progress is persistently tracked and the software adapts accordingly (or, apart from  adaptive software, where the teachers or students are prompted to respond). The testing culture in American K-12 education illustrates some of these data on the macro level. There is no question that big data sets will be used in ways that will amaze, trouble and baffle many of us over the upcoming decade. This is certain to happen in the education sector as much as anywhere else.

Yet, it is important for us to remember that the technologies of modern statistics and data analytics have values. The more we seek to use them, the more they drive us to look for that which they are best at measuring. This means that standardized tests are likely to be used before portfolio assessment practices, personalized adaptive learning software before messier student-centered self-directed learning practices. Until we gain the ability to collect and analyze broader types and ranges of learner activity, these technologies have a way of telling us what to value as much as measuring that which we value. For example, suppose I wanted to understand how much my children love me. Would I be satisfied with a dashboard that indicates the number of times they spoke those words in the last month, the number of acts of kindness toward me, or something else that is easily quantifiable? I’m reminded of something I referenced by G.K. Chesterton back in a 2012 article about letter grades:

G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, is talking about a completely different subject, but he discusses how many people seek to quantify things that are not inclined toward quantification. They are pictures, not diagrams. Consider your favorite piece of art, song, or sunset. Would you agree that a careful quantitative analysis and report on any of those would give an accurate picture of why it is your favorite? Would you be satisfied with a quantitative analysis in place of a picture or the real thing? Suppose you went to an art museum and discovered that every painting and sculpture was replaced with a chart or diagram that represents the same concepts or ideas that were previously illustrated in the work of art. I contend that letter grades too often do a similar thing.

This is an important caution as we move forward with learning analytics, big data, and strategies to identify quantitative measures for student learning. The measures are often (usually…almost always…maybe always) just approximations. The data will tell a story, but there are other important stories of learning to be told that are not read in the numbers, not in any set of easy measures that we develop. I am not arguing that we resist the move toward analytics in education, only that we better understand it, what it is, what it is not, how it can influence and shape our mission, vision, values and goals. The data are not just measures of our stand alone goals. Key Performance Indicators, for example, are hardly ever just measures of things we value. Over time, they influence what we value, sometimes in subtle and hardly noticeable ways, but other times (and over time) the influence can be substantial. Is it time to share one of my favorite Postman concepts again? With any technology (including big data, statistics, and learning analytics) it is not just about learning how to use the technology, but taking time to understand how it uses us.

The author of the article that I mentioned before (Walking Dead of Higher Education), for example, seems to propose that we provide quantitative answers to questions I’m not sure can be answered by quantitative measures alone, not unless we change the questions to make them more easily quantifiable. If we really want to get into what students are learning and how the higher education experience is impacting students, it will be a longitudinal mixed methods study on every learner. However, that is too messy, time-consuming, expensive and unrealistic…at least for some (but this might change). What usually happens is that we reduce the academic standards to something less (even as we do it in the name of something like academic rigor), but something less that is easier to measure, communicate and understand by parents, consumers, the public and politicians. The technology of modern statistics is not neutral. It values that which its current tools can measure and tends to minimize the rest. Without thoughtful deliberation, the charge to become more data-driven in education is a proposal to change the core values of schools to fit a new set of values embraced by a specific set of stakeholders. Only time will tell how this push for elevating the quantifiable will play out in higher education and P-12 schools.

As much as this article may seem to indicate otherwise, I am an advocate (or rather a Luddvocate) for learning analytics and big data in education. I am not, however, a champion for doing it with our eyes closed. It is time for us to count the cost as best as we are able, and to allow our institutional mission, vision, values and goals to maintain a strong voice in this growing world of data.

By the way, if I put my futurist hat on for a moment, I caution some of the loudest advocates for data-driven education and the dominance of quantitative measures in schools. Big data are here to stay, and it will push itself into many other areas, not just education. Politicians are using data to drive campaign decisions. Wait until data start to flip, when citizens start to use data to analyze the behaviors of politicians. Just as information was democratized with the first phase of the digital revolution, wait for some excitement when analytics becomes equally democratized (look for a full article on this topic in the near future).

10 Alternatives to Traditional New Year’s Resolutions

As people are preparing for the new year, many are working on that perfect New Year’s resolution. Three years ago I resolved to stop creating traditional resolutions. That doesn’t mean letting go of setting goals and aspirations for establishing a focus for the upcoming year. It is just that I wanted something different, a bit more playful and inspirational. If you feel the same way, here are seven options to consider. I focus upon education and social entrepreneurship, and these ideas can work just as well for the classroom teacher, University administrator, and educational startup founder. They also work for just about anyone else. Enjoy.

Choose 3 Words

I came across this blog post at the beginning of 2013 where Chris Brogan provided an interesting twist on the New Year’s Resolution. Instead, he explains how he chooses three words to shape, inspire, inform, and direct his life, work and thinking. I liked this idea so much that I’ve used it in both 2013 and 2014, and I plan to do it again in 2015. By the way, he suggests limiting yourself to 3 words, not 4. I ignored that advice last year and learned the hard way. 4 is just one too many to juggle, at least for me. Having three is part of the power of this approach. It forces you to narrow your focus to no more than three areas, allowing you to devote your energy and go deeper into a few areas.

Establish a Short List of Core Values

This is not about what you want to accomplish, but more about who you are as a person. What are the values that drive and inform what you do? For example, I know that faithfulness is a clear core value for me. Know that about me and it is much easier to understand why I react the way that I do to different life circumstances. It also helps me understand more about my own thoughts, habits and decisions. The provided link will walk you through a process to identify your core values.

Create or Revise a Personal Mission Statement

Most organizations have one, but they can work well for individuals as well. I’ve reworked mine a few times over the last twenty years, and I find the statement to be a wonderful guide as I work through challenge and respond to opportunities. If this is a new concept, the link above will take you to a simple 5-step guide to creating one. Creating a personal mission statement will help you refine your goals and sense of purpose while also giving focus to your activities in the coming year. Of course, it is only useful if you use it, so that means devising a plan to think of and use it daily…at least a few times a week.

Create a Bucket List

This idea caught on ever since the movie, The Bucket List, came out years ago. It is a simple idea. What do you want to do or experience before you die? Or, you can just create an annual bucket list. What do you want to do or experience before the end of this coming year? While this can just be a list of goals, many tend to focus on things that they want to experience.

Give Yourself a Title and Work Your Way Into It

Most people in leadership know that you can prepare for a leadership role, but much of the learning is on the job, it happens after you get the job and the title. Having the job is part of what drives you to learn. Either you figure it out or you need to give up the title. So, why not try this with other aspects of your life? Give yourself the title that you dream of having, but make it fun, interesting and inspiring. You might want to think of titles that have never existed. Be the first Executive Director of Encouragement, or CEO and Founder of Work/Life Balance. Once you have the title, start with your 90 day plan. What are you going to do to thrive in this new position?

Write Your End of the Year Reflection Before the Year Begins

During the holiday season, I know many who send out family letters to others, sharing what happened during the past year. What if you tried writing one now? Be creative with how you write it and don’t set yourself up for failure. However, this lets you conduct goal-setting in a creative way. You have the year to live the story that you just wrote. We all know that there will be surprises and unexpected twists. I suppose that is part of the joy ( and challenge) of living out our true life’s story, so don’t use it like a script or guilt factory. Instead, just use it for inspiration. As the year progresses, pull it out and revise it every few months. Try a Google Doc that tracks changes. At the end of the following year, see what stayed the same an what changed. Did it influence or focus your efforts? Did it add a helpful level of self-reflection and self-examination to your year?

Create a Photo Album for the Upcoming Year

Browse the web and find 5-10 photos that are amazing, beautiful, inspiring…pictures in which you would love to see yourself. Then make it your goal to take an actual picture of yourself in that same scene or something really similar. Be creative. You are using pictures to represent goals for the year while also giving you a bit of inspiration and a more concrete image of what it will look like when you accomplish the goal.

Decide What You Will Measure in the Upcoming Year

In this growing world of analytics, informatics and big data; more people are thinking about how to use this data to reach goals, increase performance, and seek overall improvements. Organizations are doing it and sites like LifeHacker tell the stories of how people analyzed aspects of their lives with sometimes startling discoveries. This isn’t for everyone, but we know that people tend to track and measure much of what they value. So, why not create a plan to track a few of the things that you value in the upcoming year? See if you can device an easy (which is critical if you are going to stick with it) and playful way to track your performance or behavior in those areas? If appropriate, consider sharing the data with someone else or certain groups to add a little accountability. People usually talk about setting a goal first and then deciding on a way to measure progress. In reality, deciding the measure and establishing the goal sometimes happens all at the same time. However, be careful that you don’t find the ease of measurement shifting you from a goal that you truly value to one that that is less important to you but just easier to track.

Create a Commitment Contract

I recently learned about StickK, a web site that allows you to set a goal and add some stakes to achieving it. So, you can commit to paying someone a certain amount of money if you do not achieve the goal. The Yale researchers behind the site claim that it increases the chances of you achieving your goal. If you think this might work for you, why not give it a try in the new year? By the way, this site also allows you to set up a person or people to hold you accountable and others to be your dedicated cheerleaders.

Focus Outward in the New Year

While many resolutions about are kicking a bad habit, losing weight, getting fit or some other personal goal; why not flip the focus to someone else, a group, or organization? What if you made it your mission to benefit others in the upcoming year? Who will you help, why, and how? Be specific.

Why it is Time to Move Beyond Integrating Technology

I had the opportunity to give the keynote at the University of Nebraska Lincoln Tech Edge Conference a few years ago. I was invited to speak about the future of education in an increasingly technological world. While futures is a more common theme for my work now, at that point, I focused more upon the current and emerging trends. Regardless, I enjoyed the opportunity to think about the future. Not being a futurist, I instead looked at the present and offered four or five candid statements about what I think is worthy of change. Looking at the present state of education, especially as it relates to educational technology, what changes should we make to collectively create a positive move in the broader field of education? With that in mind, I suggested that it is time to “move beyond” four or five things. This post is a reflection on the first of those. It is time to move beyond integrating technology.

By that, I do not mean that it is time to stop using technology. My concern is with the nature of the discourse that so often surrounds the phrase, “integrating technology.” My greatest concern comes when working with the administrators of our learning organizations as they talk about broad integration efforts. One of the more dominant efforts the past decade or two is the move toward school-wide one-to-one programs. Please note that my concern is not with 1:1 programs, as they can bring some wonderful affordances for learning environments. What concerns me is that the integrating technology discourse among administrators has great attention to the “what” with often absent or limited interest in the “why.” Without asking why questions, we lose opportunity to attend to organizational mission, vision, and core values.

Either we need to add new and powerful “why” words to the integrating technology discourse, or we need to start a new discourse altogether. Some might point to the digital media and learning movement as one attempt at a new and more substantive discourse, and I do see great potential in it. Time will tell if it finds dominance. For now, let me offer a little more commentary to the existing “integrating technology” discourse that continues to lead the way in many learning organizations.

First, let us consider the simplicity and even absurdity of the question, “How can we integrate more technology in our school or classrooms?” What other community or organization is driven by such a question? Can you imagine the coach of a football team setting the goal of integrating more technology into the team? Or, what about a couple, concerned about their relationship, deciding that the integration of communication technology is the most important remedy? These examples point to the simple goal of adding more technology lacks the ability to get at the things that we most value, unless technology in and of itself is the value. At the same time, consider the medical field. None of us would want a doctor who refused to use current and modern medical technology. In fact, in some instances, to do that might even be a form of malpractice. To use the best tool for the task is important. Now that is a much more helpful question. Given time, resources, and other important factors, what is the best tool for this task? That is an integrating technology question that gets at mission, vision, and especially values. This is the type of question that I contend needs to be commonplace when discussing educational technology.

Here are eight questions that have often led me to more mission, vision, and value-driven technology integrations.

  1. How can I/we improve student learning in this lesson, unit, class, or across the organization?
  2. How can I/we increase learner engagement in this training, lesson, unit, or organization?
  3. How can I/we increase long term retention of key concepts in this training, unit, or lesson?
  4. How can I/we increase educational access and opportunity in this learning organization?
  5. How can I/we meet the education and training needs of a diverse and dispersed group of employees or learning organization members?
  6. How can I/we provide a learning experience that adapts to the distinct or even unique situation of each learner (prior knowledge, existing strengths and limitations, their current demands beyond the classroom, their level of confidence, etc.)?
  7. How can I/we create a learning organization that moves beyond the mass production model to a mass customization (still scalable, but not expecting that everyone should get the same treatment)?
  8. How can I/we best equip learners for the nature of life and learning in an increasingly digital world?

I suspect that these are the types of questions that will help us move beyond the current integrating technology discourse to conversations that can help us more fully embody the distinct missions, visions, and core values of our learning organizations.

Top 10 Etale Articles in 2014

top10Over the last couple of years, I’ve created a summary post at the end of the year, highlighting those articles that capture the imagination and interest of the most readers. So, staying the course with this tradition, following are the 10 most visited Etale articles in 2014.

5 Common Reasons for the Importance of Letter Grades

First published in April of 2013 as part of my MOOC on Learning Beyond Letter grades, this article highlights common arguments for the value of letter grades, but also includes some challenges or limitations to those arguments.

50+ Education Documentaries to Challenge and Inspire

I’m a longstanding devotee of documentaries of all kinds, but in 2014 I decided to focus my exploration of education documentaries and I was amazed at what I found, over 50 wonderfully thought-provoking and substantive explorations of everything race and education to unschooling, education around the world, textbook bias, the higher education crisis and the digital revolution. So, why not share my exploration with the world by putting together a list of them. This is one of those posts that I intend to update every few months.

A Primer on 3 “gogies”

I didn’t expect this one to capture so many people’s interest, but it certainly did. It simply explains the difference between pedagogy, heutagogy, and andragogy. Then I end by adding five more “gogies” to the list.

10 Uses of MOOCs for High School Students

This one also comes from 2013. I explain many of the emerging and creative ways that high schools and high school students and making use of MOOCs. These practices have only expanded since I first wrote it.

8 Simple Ideas for Helping Students Become Self-Directed Learners This Year

Yet another 2013 article, this one gives simple and practical ideas for promoting self-directed learning.

Templates for Self-Directed Learning Projects

Similarly practical, I had many people contacting me about how to get started with encouraging students to work on SDL projects. So, based upon some of the more popular approaches, I created five Google Doc templates to serve as a guide.

Infographic on Building a Personal Teaching Network

Many know of a PLN, but I took a twist on it and created this visual to show how people can started to build opportunities to teach, mentor and consult using various social media and emerging digital practices. This one is also the most pinned on Pinterest and the most retweeted on Twitter. By the way, if the idea of building a personal teaching network interests you, look for more on this topic in 2015. You might even hear an announcement about a new educational entrepreneurship initiative that I have in the words for this coming year. If it works out, this might just be another first of its kinds.

10 Educational Change Metaphors

As I speak and consult for learning organizations, it is common for people to ask tips on how to start a conversation about the need for change and innovation in their schools. The answer really depends on the context, but this article was meant to offer a few metaphors and ways of talking about the need for responding to the changes around us.

5 Types of Educational Technology Experts

Ever since I wrote this back in 2009, it has been in the top ten most visited pages on my blog each year. My guess is that it probably has to do with a common search term “types of educational technology.” However, that is really not the focus. It is a playful look at the different quirks that you will find among people drawn to educational technology.

How Will Badges and Micro-Credentialing Change Education?

Micro-credentials make up the the topic about which I wrote the most in 2014, and this article caught the attention of quite a few people. In it I speculate about the possible influence of this movement that continues to gain traction. Looking back at the article, I still stand by every prediction. Some have already started to emerge, but others will still take a few more years (maybe more) before that are more broadly recognized.

There you have it. These are the ten most visited articles on my blog in 2014. As I reflect on my work and writing over the last year, I am truly grateful for the time and interest that so many of you have in my work. Writing and exploring the possibilities of life and learning in the digital age are two of my great passions, and I’m honored to share these passions with each reader. When I first committed to writing consistently in 2013, I never imagined the reach that it would have and the amazing connections that I would build with brilliant people and fascinating organizations around the world. It is my hope that 2015 will only extend and deepen those connections. Thank you for being part of my personal learning and teaching network in 2014.