Big data refers to the high volume of varied information that our societies produce today. The amount of data generated is so vast that it is even difficult to capture, manage and process it through conventional means. Big data increasingly influence our lives as better forms of data processing appear and storage capacity improves. Individuals’ interaction in social media, for example, serves companies to better understand consumer demand and find new ways to reach their targeted public. Similarly, city planners use urban mobility data to better address public transportation needs. Big data is changing the way decisions are made everywhere, and education is no exception.
Education systems produce a huge amount of information about our students and schools. This includes data such as students’ attendance and attainment, their performance and socioeconomic background, as well as schools’ population composition and instruction time. These and other kinds of information are important for the administration of education systems, but it can be also very helpful for analysing system’s functioning and supporting its improvement.
Access to data can help students define their learning goals and strategies. It can give families information to help make decisions and support their children’s educational paths and improve, teachers and schools ability to better adapt teaching methods to suit students’ specific context and needs. It can aid researchers in identifying what works best and new ways for data to further improvement, as well as give decision makers the evidence to design policies that better support their districts and schools.
However, the single fact of having the information is not enough to take advantage of it. An OECD case study shows that self-evaluation processes for development and improvement in some Polish schools were hindered by an excessive emphasis on in-between schools comparisons and competition. The absence of a culture of evaluation led these schools to narrow their focus on students’ test results. Given that the quality of schools is not determined by these results alone, their efforts were not able to bring about improvement.
As the Polish case exemplifies, the process of collection, analysis and use of data comes with its own challenges. The combination of descriptive data, research findings and practitioner knowledge is what creates robust knowledge environments for decision making. Results from standardised tests, for example, only provide a snapshot of performance at a particular moment in time. It is when these are combined with other kinds of information that we can actually use this information to improve our practices where it matters the most: the classroom. The Knewton platform is a good example of how such a combination can play a crucial role in finding tailored solutions to students’ individual learning needs.
Teachers, schools and other stakeholders involved in decision making need to transform available data into knowledge, which is to say, they need to assimilate this information and understand how to use it. But this is easier said than done. Creating robust knowledge environments that effectively support decision making requires building capacity for stakeholders across the system. Big data can surely support educational change, but knowing which information to use, why and how is as fundamental as its availability.