"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Big Data

"We now generate more data every two days than we did in aggregate from the dawn of early civilization through the beginning of the 21st century...this is called the 'Big Data Revolution'" (Gerencser, 2008).  The words big data revolution  have a frightening overtone, but I don't have a context for what they really mean.  Gerencser (2008) gives a business and security perspective on the meaning; it is disturbing to read about the vulnerabilities of  intellectual property, and our national security, to hackers with criminal intentions.  For some background, Mark Gerencser is a managing partner in a large, defense contracting firm in Northern VA.

I suppose I'm in denial about the ways Google, Facebook, Yahoo, this blog, etc. continually collect information from every key stroke I make.  I'm forced to ask myself if it is a coincidence that I receive marketing ads about specific things I look at while surfing the Internet.  Denial, denial, denial.  Technology is good for us.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it! 

I recently came across a publication from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Outreach and Technical Assistance Network (OTAN)  Expanding evidence approaches for learning in a digital world (2012) that once again made me face big data.  "This report discusses the promise of sophisticated digital learning systems for collecting and analyzing very large amounts of fine-grained data ("big data") as users interact with systems" (OTAN, 2012).  This is something called education data mining.  To be clear, the "users" who "interact with systems" are our children sitting at their school computers doing their assignments and taking tests.  "Various stakeholders in the education community have different perspectives and needs, but all share an interest in understanding how to use digital learning systems, the data they generate, information, and evidence to address specific challenges in the U.S. education system.  The opportunities digital learning resources create and the data they produce have important implications for each stakeholder group"  (OTAN 2012).  Now I have a vision of children chained to computers that capture every keystroke they make. 

Given my recent discovery of the way literacy is treated as an independent variable that can be quantified and studied, the concept of education data mining gives me pause.  I implied the adult education system could be better run as a business model, however, education data mining points me in a very different direction.  Who are the stakeholders and what is at stake with our education system? 

Education data mining allows for something called design-based implementation research (DBIR).  This is a different way to conduct education research, one that systematically assigns "users" (our children) to random test groups and collects data as it happens (as our children are sitting at their computers in the classroom).   Called "rapid A/B testing," its results  allow digital learning systems (the computers in our children's classrooms) to be enhanced based on the user's input.  I'm over simplifying this because I can't begin to fully understand it, but I think it means the software on the child's computer would adapt based on the way the child responds to prompts.

I'm not able to hide my fear and apprehension about big data, DBIR, and its implications for the future of education.  I read the words "address specific challenges in the U.S. education system" (OTAN, 2012) and I can't help but think it's a challenge we created because we're trying to quantify knowledge and measure it in a way that is self-promoting.  Furthermore, the "specific challenges" include some human elements that are completely overlooked by classroom "learning systems." For one thing, the student must be present to input data.  How does DBIR address the drop out rate?

My naive idea about running adult education as a business seems comforting compared to a big data/DBIR  model in which we can engineer learning (and learners?).  Adult education is going digital with GED testing in 2014.  I think we need to be on the look-out for new "challenges" we will create from that data.  I need to remind myself to question the Truth, question the ideology, and question what is at stake. 

Thank, Susan.



  1. Susan - you do bring up things I do not want to think about! I find myself asking - what is the point of capturing so much data? Why do we need software that learns (yikes!)? Then, you point out the only "voices" heard are those who get to sit at the table because they have access to the technology - are we having fun, yet? NO! I could use some of that comforting now, too...thanks :-)

  2. Susan Watson,
    This post is chilling, and confusing. In some ways, the "continuous feed" approach seems elegant and might even eliminate the need for high stakes testing (since we are gatheirng data all the time). Also, while I strongly resist the "independent variable" concept of literacy, if we used multipe data points rather than a single metric, this would at least move us closer to the rich complexity of literate behavior. But then the potential for insanity suggests itself: if we are not collecting the right data, this real-time "truth regime" becomes the ultimate expression of capillary, embodied oppression. Our every movement monitored, reported, flagged. Yikes indeed.


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