Big data has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives. It determines the advertisements we see, the routes our GPS directs us, the posts we encounter on social media, unusual activity on our credit cards, entertainment recommendations from streaming services and the list could go on. Big data has become big business.
Education is not a stranger to the influences of big data. From standardized testing to predictive analysis, big data is changing the way people learn, but is it for better? As with anything, arguments can be made for and against the use of data. That’s not really where attention should be focused though. Big data will change and evolve, but it’s impact is here to stay. That’s why it is important to understand the areas where big data can fall short of expectations.
Collecting large pools of data and having a computer analyze the information is the easy part. Understanding the information collected and not confusing correlation with causation is much trickier. Add in implementing changes that require cultural shifts in the way decisions are made and decreasing the political influence on those decisions — complications go through the roof. To effectively implement big data, a school has to be ready for a big change.
People tend to trust numbers. However, the individuals behind numbers and algorithms aren’t infallible. Gaps in data can be overlooked rather than analyzed for why there’s a gap. People also have a tendency to search out data that supports what they already believe to be true. All of this can lead to bias in the reporting of numbers. However, the algorithm bias doesn’t stop there. Machine-learning algorithms can learn bias from the information they collect. With examples coming from Google, Microsoft and many more, it becomes clear that while big data can be extremely useful, it still requires oversight and adjustment.
Privacy is a growing concern. As more information is collected and widely available about each one of us, our individual security is threatened. Given the most recent security breech at Equifax, it isn’t unreasonable to question how safe a business, or school, can keep your personal records and information. In a report from the National Academy of Education, it is recommended that universities and researchers should be better educated on privacy issues to help minimize risk to students when it comes to data collection.
Big data can lead to policy changes, but are those changes for the best? Will they continue to be evaluated to make sure they are addressing the need they were designed to fill? For example, standardized testing advocates have yet to demonstrate causal improvement in teaching and learning. Big data can provide numbers, but not direction or the right questions to ask. With all the enthusiasm around big data, it is important to keep in mind that it is tool rather than the solution itself.