5 Strategies for a Balanced Approach to Big Data in Education

We are in the decade a big data. During this second decade in the 21st century, many are grappling with the challenges and opportunity of massive data and the emergence of tools to mine and analyze these data. Within education, this is not new. It started long before No Child Left Behind, with the 20th century growth of modern educational psychology and measurement movements. From that era we saw IQ and aptitude testing, standardized and multiple choice tests, the Bell Curve, and countless efforts in quantifying almost anything about students: achievement, retention, reading proficiency, performance by demographic data, etc. While some of these ideas have a much longer history (China used proficiency exams for civil service already in 2200 B.C.), these certainly gained a new level of attention and importance over the last 150-175 years. Consider how things have changed, as explained by David McAruthur in his 1983 report, Educational Testing and Measurement: A Brief History.

In the mid-1800s, Horace Mann launched the use of written exams in the United States. Based on that, promotion to the next grade was based on performance on these exams. Prior to that, it was oral exams and personal recommendation of the teacher. Testing was not central aspects of American education before this.

Already by the end of the 19th century, because these tests and the perceived negative impact by some, we saw the birth of a new concept, “teaching to the test.” In places like Chicago, there was even a ban on using tests for grade promotion, arguing that the teacher’s recommendation was the better option. The concern was that we would lose much of the “magic” in teaching and learning environments if we used a reductionist approach like just focusing upon students performing well on the tests. Nonetheless, even today there is an entire industry around test preparation and equipping people to perform as best as they can on tests ranging from the SAT to the GRE, LSAT and MCAT.

At this point in history, with more teaching and learning happening partly or fully through technology-enhanced means, we have even more student data to track and analyze. Every action on a device can be captured and reviewed. Similarly, external agencies are requiring the tracking of data about students: data ranging from demographics to attendance, vaccination records, and academic progress.

The advocates for big data point to many affordances. We can identify people at risk before it is too late, sometimes even proactively. We can use data to drive improvements in one or more eras. We can use data to more quickly identify and address problems. We can use data sets to personalize learning, conduct research on best and promising practices, measure progress, and to prevent students from slipping between the cracks (any number of cracks: socially, academically…).

Critics bring plenty of concerns to the conversation as well. Large data sets might inform policy, but while those policies help many, there are always losers with some policies as well. For example, perhaps predictive analytics allow learning organizations to track who is likely to succeed in an upper level math course. As such, they use this to track students on pathways that are more likely to work out for the students. That might exclude a student who is passionate about a STEM field and is willing to work hard enough to overcome the risks and alters that discouraged such a path. Then there are concerns about data privacy, misinterpretation of data, and losing sight of the people…the faces behind the numbers. Empathy and personal connection can be easily disregarded as important part of informing policy. Numbers matter, but so do the people represented in those numbers. There is an important difference between knowing that 80% of a given population is performing below grade level on reading and knowing the stories, challenges, and lived experiences of the people in that 80%.

How do we pursue the benefits of big data while also avoiding some of the limitations or negative elements? There is no easy answer to such a question, but I offer the following ten suggestions.

  1. Persistently challenge the assumption that quantitative data are more important. Get adept at arguing for the benefits of qualitative and quantitative measures. There are plenty of stories and examples from we can pull to make our point.
  2. Learn about the stories of big data success and invest just as much time in learning about big data disasters. Specific cases and examples can help important practice. Push for much higher levels of big data fluency. If we are going to be increasingly data-driven, then we need people who have higher levels of quantitative fluency. Without that, we either relegate important thought and work to a new quantitative tehcnocracy or we risk making flawed, even dangerous, conclusions by misreading the data. Anyone arguing for increased use of data must also be ready to put in the hard work of becoming more literate and fluent.
  3. Beware of the drive to value that which is easier to measure. This starts by persistently bringing the group back to mission, vision, values and goals. If we do not do this, it is easy enough for missions and goals to change just because some goals are more neatly and easily measured than others. Big data is not just about numbers. You can have big quantitative and qualitative data. Be a firm voice in starting with mission. We want to be mission-driven, data-informed, not the other way around.
  4. Consider an equal treatment approach to data usage. If teachers insist on using big data to analyze students, then shouldn’t big data be used to inform policies for teachers as well? What about the same thing for administrators and board members? While this will never be perfect, pushing for an equal treatment approach is likely to nurture empathy and more balanced consideration by decision-makers. For example, consider how many educators insist on the value of frequent tests, quizzes and grading practices that they would vehemently oppose if the same practices were applied to them. Take this an apply it to the state agencies, federal agencies, and politicians as well. Any politicians committed to arguing for big data on a state or federal level in education should be just as open and welcoming to the use of an careful data-driven analysis of their success, record and behaviors in office.
  5. Champion for the most highest possible ethical standards when it comes to data. Sometimes it is so tempting to use data, even for noble purposes, but we have to pass for security reasons or to protect various parties. We must hold the highest possible standard in this regard, even when personal loss is involved.

Big data in education will continue to have affordances and limitations, but these five strategies are at least a good start in promoting a more balanced approach.


Building Educational Birdhouses & Social Entrepreneurship

What does it take to build a birdhouse? How about an educational birdhouse? That is a question that I’ve asked several audiences amid keynote presentations over the last year. I ask this question because I’ve found it be a helpful way to illustrate the role and importance of educational innovation.

When I ask the question, I prime the responses by showing a picture of an ordinary birdhouse. As such, the replies are always the same. It takes wood, a hammer, nails and/or screws, and a drill. The tools are standard as our vision of birdhouses is often standard.

Then I ask again. How do you build a birdhouse when or if none of those resources or available, or if you want to take advantage of other resources? Then I show a second slide, this time with a wide and wild range of designs. There is the discarded cowboy boot with a hole drilled in the side. There is the dried gourd. There might be a clay birdhouse or one made of a recycled can or bottle. Now, looking at these options, what does it take to build a birdhouse? This shift of images opens eyes to the possibilities in our thinking about education. What does it take to build an educational birdhouse?

The ultimate mission is largely the same, to build a birdhouse that serves as a house for birds. Lose that mission-minded focus and you can build wonderfully creative contraptions, but they don’t accomplish a compelling mission. As such, it is valuable to start with the mission, vision, values, and goals. Then we can assess how to best build it. With such approach, innovation becomes one of our greatest allies. Without a mission-minded focus, innovation can quickly move us toward chasing shiny things, the bells and whistles approach to educational entrepreneurship.

Now consider the role of policy and practice in education. If we start with the assumption that you build a birdhouse one way, and that way requires a hammer, nails, drill, wood, and the like, then we risk losing out on some wonderfully creative and impactful opportunities. This happens all the time in education. We crave clarity or a simple recipe, and we start with too many assumptions about what education should look like. So we build something that is largely the same as what we had before.

Then we establish policies, regulations, and standard practices that force others into the same type of educational birdhouse building. When we see rich and creative alternatives, the educational equivalent of the repurposed cowboy boot, we look with doubt and suspicion. Or, sometimes we try to regulate those groups back into more standard practice. If all that fails, we just label it “alternative”, unrealistic, not scalable or something that allows us to dismiss it as the exception to the rule that should dominate our work in education.

Steve Hargaddon recently interviewed me for Teacher Entrepreneurship week, and he asked me to provide my definition of teacher entrepreneurship in advance, a one-sentence description. I wanted something that added a twist on what I thought others might do. So I went with this: “Teacher entrepreneurship is a creative, radical, passionate, mission-minded pursuit of the unconventional.” Why creative? It is because entrepreneurship is usually about coming up with an idea and turning it into a business. Ideation is usually a key part of the entrepreneur’s mindset. The same it true for educational entrepreneurship. Why passionate and mission-minded? It is because entrepreneurship in the education sector is a form of social entrepreneurship. It is missional in nature, about using the tools of the entrepreneur to bring about a social good. To be a teacher entrepreneur is to have an educational mission and to be both passionate about and committed to that mission.

What about radical and unconventional? This comes back to the birdhouse analogy. Many of the challenges in education are more difficult to address because of the policies, practices, regulations, rituals, and standard practices that we have embraced. We get stuck on one way of thinking. If we could find a way to look at things differently, we could see a world of solutions or better ways of going about something. These policies and regulations were usually added for good reason, but over time they lose their value. They either serve no purpose or they become downright obstructions to addressing some of the greatest challenges and pursuing some of the most promising opportunities.

There are so many current examples. There was the “aha” moment about competency-based education that leads to great opportunities, but the expansion is stunted because outside agencies can’t figure out how to regulate it. Online learning is increasing access and opportunity in amazing ways, but in higher education, it is challenging to keep up with and comply to the shifting (and even competing) standards and regulations coming from various agencies. Personalized learning is serving diverse students but many still get stuck thinking about education as an act of mass distribution of content or standard instruction for all. Individual teachers see students with distinct needs and try to personalize the learning experience only to get their hand slapped by administrators or others because they ventured into a non-standard practice or something that doesn’t fit their existing model or framework.

As a result, there are many losers. Schools lose out on being as effective as they could be. They also lose amazing and innovative teachers who too often leave for places where they can better tap into their entrepreneurial spirit. Students lose out on great learning experiences. The world loses out on gifts and abilities not nurtured or discovered among students during their school years. Restricting ourselves to a single, standard approach to building educational birdhouses squelches potential in organizations, individuals, even entire communities and cultures.

At the same time, we are in a promising era in education because there are more people trying new and unconventional approaches to building educational birdhouses than any other time in history. There are experiments within the most regulated realms but also important education experiments that are incubated safely beyond the influence of many policies and regulations. This creativity and ingenuity is promising. It is a strength of modern education. Now our task is to help it spread. Let’s help nurture a world of crazy, unconventional, diverse and mission-minded educational innovations. Let’s resist the temptation to build a massive yard full of the same, standard educational birdhouse. This means letting go of the temptation to centralize and overly standardize. It means seeing the value in diversity and creativity; and accepting the fact that this will not be as easy to quantify. It is time for a new era of building educational birdhouses.

2 Essentials for Strong University Corporate Partnerships

University corporate partnerships are on the rise, but we are nearing a time when more people will realize that the higher education credentialing emperor has no clothes. Credentials still play an important role in society, and I expect them to continue to play such a role. At the same time, the cost of demonstrating competence by earning an academic credential is substantial, and there are oftentimes unusual (to the rest of the world) and unreasonable (again, to the rest of the world) hoops through which one must jump to reach competence and earn the credential. The more the connected world amplifies the message that there are other pathways to learning, the more organizations will wake up to the awareness that colleges are not their only source or option when it comes to equipping their employees with world-class education that will ultimately help the company achieve business goals. When that happens, Universities pursuing partnerships will need to have two critical elements in place (keep reading to find out about those elements).

Types of University Corporate Partnerships

I’ve written in the past about the promise and possibility (not to mention the risk and limitations) of University partnerships with corporations. This has, in some instances, been an intriguing way to address the cost of ongoing education, not to mention a great perk at some companies. However, there are many different types of partnerships. The well-known ASU / Starbucks partnership is not really about ASU helping Starbucks get better trained, better education employees, at least not according to the words of the Starbucks CEO. It might achieve this goal indirectly by likely increasing employee loyalty and satisfaction, maybe even improving the pool of applicants for jobs at  Starbucks. However, the idea behind the partnership was not focused on something specific like paying for employees to get MBAs so they are better equipped for promotions into leadership positions. What I’m referring to in this article are the instances where companies do seek such a direct benefit.

For any partnership to work, both parties need to get something desirable out of it. If a University is partnering as a means of marketing and recruiting students, that benefit is easily measurable. What about on the company side? If the benefit for the company is to take good care of employees and add an extra HR perk that builds loyalty and maybe serves as a recruitment tool (We help cover ___% of ongoing education, and even more if you go to ___________.), that is fine. However, if it is actually about the education that employees receive, namely equipping the employees to improve the quality of their work or be equipped for a future role, this is where I come back to the idea of an academic emperor parading around naked, thinking he has clothes on.

I’m referring to instances where Universities mistakenly think that their credential is what really matters, not the education. I noticed a recent University of Phoenix advertisement where a person is commending another on her work, noting that she was prime for a promotion. As he encourages her, he asks, “You do have your MBA, don’t you?” The suggestion is clear. If you don’t have an MBA, your chances at the promotion are slim to none. Some companies function that way, but the best ones don’t. They ultimately care about competence more than credentials. Who cares if you have an MBA if you can’t deliver on job? Ideally, maybe that want someone with the credential and the competence, but in the end, companies that value results want people who can deliver.

Two Essential Elements for University Corporate Partnerships

This is where Universities seeking out such corporate partnerships need to engage in some serious introspection. If I am coming to a partnership with a company, it isn’t the MBA that I am offering, it is the ability to mentor, coach, train, and educate people in  way that is needed by that company. As such, that University will be held accountable for the results, which already happen anecdotally when we hear statements like, “Don’t hire graduates of ________ because they can’t do the job well.”

As I see it, this ultimately comes down to two things for Universities. First, it is about ensuring outcomes that align with the goals and needs of the partnership company. Second, it is about being relentless and serious about faculty talent management. With regard to the first, I can’t get away with outdated syllabi and theoretical courses that don’t help people understand how it applies in real world contexts. I need to be fully committed to a relevant, current, rigorous, world-class curriculum. The same it true for the faculty. I need to have world-class faculty, the type of people that those partnering companies would love to hire as leaders or consultants in a given area. The company is coming to the University to get something that they don’t have. If it is just the “license” to issue credentials, that will only cut it in the most regulated of industries. In the rest, it needs to be about the University brining top talent to the partnership, providing a value not easily obtained by the company without the partnership. Ignoring this can work for a time, but I’m convinced that it will backfire over time.

Paying attention to these two items will accomplish the following:

  1. It will put clothes back on that proud but naked higher education emperor.
  2. It will create an authentic and mutually beneficial partnership.
  3. It will build a higher education community that dispels concerns about the value of higher education today.
  4. It will help professional programs in Universities stay sharp, current, and providing the type of education that people need and want.
  5. It will also protect such programs in Universities from falling into the dangerous trap of believing that its credentials are its greatest value, because if credentials are its greatest value, then that is a sure sign that this program is just a new spin on a the classic diploma mill.

Credentials matter and probably always will, but academic credentials are most valuable when they signify true competence. The best way to do that is by having a great curriculum and top faculty talent.

The One Thing We Can’t Afford to Waste in Education

Maybe this is too simple. Perhaps it shouldn’t need to be stated, but as we think about waste in education today, there is a central tenet that could transform the way we think about education reform, education policy, classroom practice, educational technology, educational innovation and entrepreneurship and most any other part of education. Students, their gifts, abilities, passions, and interests are too precious to be wasted.

People are concerned about waste in education. Scan the headlines about University education and people are incredibly concerned about wasted financial resources and the cost of college. Look at debates on the K-12 level and we read about wasted investment in unused technology and concerns about teachers. Some argue that teachers need to be held more accountable, while others argue that they need to be more celebrated, supported and empowered. I don’t deny the importance of these other topics, and I spend  time writing about these other challenges and working on them. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it comes back to the students.

Buckminster Fuller was an eccentric but unquestionably brilliant 20th century inventor. While he rejected the title of futurist, the vision represented in many of his inventions reached decades into the future. His work continues to inspire new innovations and inventions. Earlier in his life, he experienced a crisis that, according to his own lectures and writings, led him to contemplate taking his own life. As he stood by the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, he considered swimming out into the ice-cold water to the point of no return.

Before entering the water, he had an experience that changed the course of his life. One thing that he discovered through this experience is the idea that each person in the world is in a position to contribute something that no other person will ever be able to contribute. Each person has a unique combination of experiences, gifts, talents, abilities, proclivities, strengths, limitations, passions and interests. Each person is irreplaceable. No other person has ever or will ever bring that some combination into the world. From this epiphany, Fuller spent the rest of life conducting the “Fuller Experiment.” This is, “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefitting humanity.”

It is only in the last few years that I learned about Buckminster Fuller. Since then I’ve had a consistent diet of his work, writing, and the many recordings of his lectures. I don’t agree with or understand everything that he said or wrote, but I can’t help but be inspired by the sense of purpose that shaped his life and work. This brings me back to the one thing that we can’t afford to waste in education.

Fuller believed that every person had something valuable to offer the world, and I agree. If that is true, then the greatest mistake of our learning organizations would be to function as if nurturing commonalities is the most important aspect of schooling. Standardization is about commonalities and about highlighting when you don’t fit the mold or make the grade. It is about labeling people and paying special attention to the “A-grade” talent, as if the hidden or muffled talents of the others are somehow less valuable.

Schools are communities of people with potential. The goal is to celebrate, discover, refine, and develop that potential in each person. While the history of American public education is, according to some, about nurturing commonalities, I contend that making that the foundation of education in not only dangerous, it is wasteful. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the environmental dangers of waste and pollution, this is a perfect time for our learning organizations to become just as focused upon eradicating waste…the waste of the unique potential in each person.

I contend that we are best positioned when we build an education system that nurtures important commonalities while also helping people discover and develop their uniqueness. There are times to nurture and develop commonalities. The things that we share can be an important bond in a community and culture. Yet, building an entire educational system on that is an industrial exercise. It is mass production, turning education into one-size-fits-all factories. For education to have the greatest impact, I contend that it must teach and celebrate commonalities while placing just as much (maybe more) attention on the uncommon that is present in each person.