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The use of Big Data in education (2/2)



“We need technology as the analytic engine to help the teacher. In most cases, technology has been the roadblock, but technology really empowers the teachers to meet the individual needs of each student,” said John Couch, Apple's vice president for education, at BETT 2015 earlier this year. In Western countries, most students already have the individual devices and/or computers to make possibe a massive online course using their personal data.


A new world of information

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It would be a rare and strange thing if education was the only domain today not to use every piece of data they have on their students, in times when companies, policymakers and financial institutions plunder every piece of information on every individual, and when these same individuals expose them in virtual public areas themselves. One of the biggest challenges is for all schools to overcome their distrust and share their information.  The question today is whether contemporary forms of higher education, such as universities and colleges, could adapt to the massive use of Big Data or if the revolution would create a new, interconnected form of high education.


The volume of data exchanged, as the name indicates, is another challenge. The magazine Fortune gives this stupefying info on the exponential rise of information: from the dinosaur age up until 2003, 5 exabytes of data were created. In 2011, 5 exabytes were being created every 2 days. In 2013, every 10 minutes. In a few years, it will be every second or  millisecond.  Social Games Zynga treats 1 petabyte of data per day.

To use the words of comic book writer Alan Moore, the world is entering the age of gaseous information. Information is being broadcast and treated by informatics at a rate and efficiency unreachable by any human intelligence. The use of Big Data in education is a way to remain adapted to a world where the information a student receives at school has become somehow marginal and neglected compared with the amount of which he/she receives every single day through social networks, websites or information devices. How then can a school’s educational vision  be adapted to a massive use of Big Data in education?

How can we keep the specific values of education in a Big Data model?


Looking at the big picture, people won't really need an intermediary anymore. It may sound like science fiction right now, but the developments seen in the last few years show that it’s not: it isn’t incredible to imagine, in the course of a few decades, an education model based on a gaming process, where students will be directly provided for, and will receive courses and tasks designed to correspond to each student’s character and taste without the student ever needing to make a choice or  to make the effort to consider their options.

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What are the repercussions of such an absolutist system on the diversity and evolution of the students that are touched by this Big Data revolution?

This type of education model, based sometimes directly on a predetermined notion of a student’s capabilities and preferences, could be devastating not only for the current education system in general, but also for the individual student, by destroying the notion of investment and replacing it with the notion of answering needs. To limit someone to his own pre-formatted needs and environmental conditions could be seen as a minor problem in terms of results (the educative and professional success of the student afterwards is enhanced). Yet, this model requires careful consideration.

When students are  offered a curriculum with a range of courses and exercises, they may appreciate some more than others but will be expected to participate in all , as the course work is equally required by everyone. That's when a new interest could be developed and students have an opportunity to enhance a variety of  abilities. However,  if a student is limited to a group of products  which, through the use of Big Data, have been developed to conform to his projected work capabilities and outcome for success - based on the same algorithms used in the entertainment industry - on a large scale, this could become a depreciative process. What the education business would end up providing would  be educational miniclubs rather than a well-rounded education.


These are few of the big questions that Big Data companies, whether they are startups or established firms, will have to address and to answer: not only to convince schools and policymakers, but to make sure nothing essential is sacrificed in the name of innovation.