Big data and education: the power of transformation

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Olivier Dumon looks at big data and its potential to change the European educational landscape

Imagine a world in which teachers could analyse the answers given in exam papers not just to find out how much their students have learned, but also to get clues as to why some gave the wrong answers or struggled to understand certain concepts.

Imagine a world in which educators could analyse the way students use and respond to the information provided by textbooks or online learning tools to see what works and what might need to be revised, and get pointers on how best to do this. Imagine a world in which teachers and university lecturers are transformed from instructors to coaches and trainers, inspiring and stimulating their students by delivering tailor-made approaches to learning that can help them to realise their full potential.

What has become known as ‘big data’ is making all of this possible. It is at the heart of the digital revolution: more information has been collected in past two years than in rest of human history. The question now is how we can harness this wealth of information to help meet the key challenges facing society in the 21st century, while addressing concerns about the privacy and security of personal data, and the legal and ethical issues this raises.

EU leaders underlined the importance of big data for Europe’s economy at their October 2013 summit. Less attention has been paid to date to the crucial question of how big data can help to deliver an education system that enables Europe to realise the full potential of its most valuable and precious resource – its people.

The internet has already had a profound impact on the way students acquire information and carry out research. Attention is now turning to the potential of big data to help radically transform the European educational landscape. It could, for example, provide educators with crucial information about individual students’ abilities and approaches to learning, enabling them to monitor progress more accurately so that courses can be designed to meet specific needs.

In addition, big data could help teachers to assess the effectiveness of different learning tools and techniques, to develop ‘smart’, interactive learning materials that also make education more fun.

Finally, it could provide researchers in universities with new tools to understand a changing world and new ways to share their findings with others, to maximise the impact and efficiency of their research.

Big data makes all this possible: used wisely, it can unlock the door to a more personalised learning experience that will motivate young people to study and better equip them for life beyond the classroom, helping to ensure Europe has a workforce with the skills required to succeed in today’s highly competitive globalised economy.

However, Europe – like elsewhere in the world – will not be able to capitalise fully on this potential without taking action to address a range of issues. Skills must be acquired to harness the power of big data; technologies and infrastructure developed to collect, store, share and analyse it; and policies agreed to address concerns surrounding privacy and security, and the potentially dehumanising impact of big data on education.

Both the legal and ethical questions posed by the use of big data must be answered. Without a concerted effort to ensure that students and parents are well informed, and to explain how big data can and will be used in educational services, further controversies of the type we have seen around the use of student data recently seen in the USA are almost inevitable.

Following the EU Commission’s communication ‘Towards a thriving data-driven economy’, submitted in July, now is an ideal time to consider what more the EU can do to address these particular issues. It cannot afford to wait, given the pace of change in this fast-moving area and the steps already being taken by competitors across the globe to exploit the potential of big data in both the public and private sectors.

This will require concerted action by all those involved – from policy-makers and educators, to researchers, students and the private sector – working together closely to find effective solutions to the challenges posed and the most effective ways to unlock such enormous potential. Collaboration, communication and transparency are essential between all stakeholders.  

Key priorities include motivating educators and policy-makers to use big data to transform learning for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole; addressing concerns about privacy and security to reassure the public that personal data will not be misused; providing teachers, students and researchers with the training required to gain the full benefit of big data; and encouraging the collaboration and partnership required to capitalise on the big data revolution.

Shaping a coherent, consistent and comprehensive approach to this issue will require free-flowing discussion to pinpoint what needs to be done – and who needs to do it – in this fast-moving area where constant and rapid change is the norm. Only by working together can we answer these questions and be at the forefront of the digital revolution.

Olivier Dumon is managing director for academic and government markets for science and technology at Elsevier, a Reed Elsevier company. He was a keynote speaker at TECY – Big Data and Education: What’s the Big Idea?, an event organised by the UCL Big Data Institute in partnership with Reed Elsevier