The More We Measure, the More We’re Measured

Data analytics is a growing part of education. Every student behavior is a potential data point, and we continue to see new and increasingly sophisticated analytic tools to track that data, look for trends, make predictions based upon it. We are using these data to label students; personalize (or adapt) teaching and learning plans according; to give teachers, classes and schools report cards; and to inform policy-making. On the broader level, politicians and policy-makers are using these data to compare, rank, and rate.

That is a quote from one of my past articles on the growing role of data in education. Now allow me to put my speculative 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 is here to stay, and it will push itself into many other areas, not just education. Politicians are using data to drive campaign decisions. Grocery stores track our purchasing habits and mine the data. Of course, our every behavior online also becomes something tracked, analyzed, and monetized in a way that puts an advertising company called Google in the Fortune 100 (think about that one for a moment…an advertising company in the Fortune 100).Why the caution? It is because I see a future where the data-miners will be measured as much as they measure.

Until recently, the data mining and analysis was happening from the top down. Now we see more of the opposite as well. Some politicians are demanding accountability in education by calling for standardized testing, mining the data and rating people accordingly. What happens when that flips? When do we start to see more dominant standardized measures of politician performance and of administrator performance? Could we find ourselves in a possible future where the behaviors of politicians are mined, analyzed and put on display for all to see? Some might argue that we are already there, but I’m talking about a much more democratized approach, not simply trusting the data analysis of select media outlets.

This is an interesting possibility because it is not yet clear whether the technologies that make analytics possibile are more democratizing or authoritarian. In some ways, data-mining drives us to more authoritarian structures, protecting data sets (everything from credit cards and social security numbers to student records). To do this, it means locking things down, limiting access, and limiting control to a few. However, there are many data that are public, and the tools for collecting and analyzing these data continue to mature. There may well be a time when the apps and software are so user-friendly that we start to see a more democratizing result. The measurers become measured. Consider just a few existing and potential future examples.

  • Just as teachers are gaining new tools to track and monitor students, there is a drive to measure and track teachers. Are administrators and school board members next?
  • Universities measure and assess prospective students, but the last decade shows us countless ways for students to rate and measure Universities. We see crowd-source data sets created and mined by students, allowing them a more candid view of prospective schools.
  • Law enforcement officials and agencies track and measure people’s conduct (like speed on the highway), but citizen watch grups can measure the behaviors of police officers as well. Or, consider the use of cameras on officers and their vehicles, something that documents the behaviors of everyone.
  • Employers review, rate and interview potential and existing employees. Now we have sites where employees rate the companies and their bosses with often candid and deep insights into the quality of life in that workplace.
  • The very policymakers who call for accountability and increased measures have their every word and vote measured. New and emerging tools will take these data and make them easily accessibility and digestible to the general public.

Data analytics is a two-way street and of us who turn to analytics and measures should probably be ready to be measured. In fact, in a society that embraces a culture of analytics, everyone can expect to have their behaviors tracked, mined, and analyzed. If you are a champion for standardized tests, Common Core, or heavy analytics in schools; then be ready to have the same approach applied to your work and life. Using data and driving others to think in data-driven ways has a way of spreading. The more we measure, the more we measure. The more we measure, the more we are likely to be measured.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.