How analytics can make education a learning experience for teachers

Big data techniques can improve education by making it possible to mine information for insights regarding student performance and learning approaches, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.

There is a real potential for improved research, evaluation and accountability through the use of data mining, data analytics and Web dashboards, according to Darrel West, director of Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation and author of the report, “Big Data for Education: Data Mining, Data Analytics, and Web Dashboards.”

“Data-driven approaches make it possible to study learning in real-time and offer systematic feedback to students and teachers,” West writes in the report. “By focusing on data analytics, teachers can study learning in far more nuanced ways,” he said.

Online tools let educators evaluate a much wider range of student actions, such as how long they devote to readings, where they get electronic resources and how quickly they master key concepts, West noted.

For example, an online high school curriculum known as Connected Chemistry helps students learn key concepts in molecular theory and gasses. However, it also allows teachers to mine learning patterns to see how students master chemistry, statistics, experimental designs and key mathematical principles.

Other ways that technology enables learning is through predictive and diagnostic assessments, the report states. McGraw-Hill has an Acuity Predictive Assessment tool that provides an early indication of how students will likely perform on state assessments tests. It assesses the gap between what students know and what they are expected to know on standardized tests and suggests where students should focus their time in order to improve exam performance.

“Armed with statistical information compiled from various digital systems, a number of schools have developed dashboard software and data warehouses that allow them to monitor learning, performance, and behavioral issues for individual students as well as the school as a whole,” according to the Brookings report.

Dashboards compile key metrics in a simple and easy to interpret interface so that school officials can quickly and visually see how the organization is doing.

The Education Department has a national dashboard that compiles public school information for the country as a whole. The dashboard measures such items as percentage of 25 to 34 year-olds who completed an associate’s or higher degree (and whether this number was up or down from earlier periods), 4th grade reading and math proficiency in National Assessment of Educational Progress, and 18 to 24 year olds enrolled in colleges and universities. It also measures the number of states using teacher evaluation systems that include student achievement outcomes.

Michigan has a dashboard at that ranks performance as improving, staying the same, or declining in various fields. The dashboard focuses on 14 indicators for student outcomes, school accountability, culture of learning, value for money (the number of districts with ongoing deficits) and post-secondary education.

Higher education dashboards often feature a wider array of material, the report states. The University of California at San Diego has dashboards that are relevant to specific parts of the organization. There is a financial dashboard that focuses on financial and capital resources. There is a faculty one that keeps tabs on sponsored research. Each draws on data from university systems and displays and updates the information as desired by the user.

Recently, the university added an energy dashboard  that measures consumption and ways the campus is saving energy.

There are many opportunities to advance learning through data mining, data analytics, and Web dashboards and visual displays, the report states. Yet operational and policy barriers complicate the achievement of these benefits.

The biggest obstacles are building data sharing networks. Many schools have information systems that do not connect with one another. There is one system for academic performance, another for student discipline, and still another for attendance, the report notes. The fragmented nature of technology inhibits the integration of school information and mining for useful trends. In addition, educational institutions need to format data in similar ways so that results can be compared.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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