Education can perhaps be improved with the introduction of “Big Data,” according to a new report from Darrell M. West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. In place of today’s “typical pedagogies,” which apparently provide little feedback to students and lack a proactive aspect with regard to teaching, West advocates using data analytics to monitor student performance in real time. “Rather than rely on periodic test performance, instructors can analyze what students know and what techniques are most effective for each pupil,” he wrote. “By focusing on data analytics, teachers can study learning in far more nuanced ways.” This data-analytic approach can involve educational software that not only helps students learn about chemistry and other subjects, but also feeds teachers information about their students’ learning patterns. On a more macro level, schools in sixteen states apparently rely on data mining to identify at-risk students. “Using prediction models based on truancy, disciplinary problems, changes in course performance, and overall grades,” West wrote, “analysts have discovered that they have a reasonable probability of identifying students who drop out.” Extend those analytics to which students are most likely to fail a particular course, or those currently going off-track, and a school can potentially become more proactive in its approach to student performance. The U.S. Department of Education, the state of Michigan, Chicago Public Schools and other systems rely on dashboards that display and analyze student information from across the system. But many of these dashboards offer a very high-level view at the expense of being able to focus more granularly on educational materials or students’ approach to learning, which West believes “limits the usefulness of the data collection for learning processes.” He also believes that the metrics currently defining the modern school—such as budget dollars spent educating students, or seat times—aren’t necessary the right metrics in determining whether students are truly getting the best possible education. A renewed focus on student outcomes, enhanced by data analytics, is something he feels could result in better student performance. Indeed, West argues that schools that choose to embrace a data-driven approach will see the benefits of improved decision-making. “It will allow administrators to identify trends, pinpoint problem areas, and direct resources in an efficient manner,” he wrote. “Digital technologies are helpful not just in terms of overall performance, but improving the learning process.” However, integrating data analysis into the educational system presents epic challenges, including the need to balance student privacy with the demands of research. “It is vital to maintain the confidentiality of student records, but there needs to be opportunities for researchers and school administrators to mine data for vital trends and helpful interventions,” he wrote. “Using privacy arguments to stop research that helps students is counter-productive.” And that means integrating teachers into any sort of analytics plan involving schools, the report concludes. Which makes sense: acting out a data-inspired plan, and accurately measuring its effects, ultimately depends on the boots on the ground.   Image: Brent Hofacker/