Big data and the age of the algorithm

Disrupting Everything By Brian Christian

Do you shop online? Follow the news on your iPad? Use Google to search for information? Of course, you do. And you may well have noticed that these activities are becoming increasingly personalised experiences: ‘you recently bought X, you might also like Y.’ Your data is big business. Algorithms are mining the tell-tale silvery data trail that, snail-like, you leave behind you wherever you go.

Here’s a little experiment you might try out. When you’ve finished reading this post (I know you won’t want to stop reading this page just yet) search for 2014 electric cars online. Then choose one or two interesting models, perhaps the BMW i3 or maybe the eccentric-looking Renault Twizy, and read up on them; you could even request a brochure. I suspect that you might be surprised to discover how often electric cars or adverts for BMW and Renault then start appearing in your online life over the next few weeks. It’s not a coincidence – like some poor, unwitting fly struggling in the strands of a spider’s web, you have been transmitting signals to someone who has been eagerly listening out for them.

The commercial and corporate worlds woke up to the possibilities some time ago and, although it took a little longer for us to smell the coffee, those of us who work in education were not too far behind in beginning to understand the potential of data and analytics. Monitoring student progress by analysing the results that students achieve in tests and exams has long been the norm in our schools, but what if we could dig deeper? In today’s connected, technology-driven world it wouldn’t be too difficult to monitor the books our students take from the library, to compare performance on tests taken in the morning with those taken in the afternoon, to measure the impact of different experiences – a group project say, or a piece of individual research, on learning and retention. What if we could link a student’s canteen card to their test results? Do students who skip lunch, or who eat unhealthily perform less well than their peers in afternoon lessons? Can we show them the data that proves it?

Eileen Murphy Buckley, former English teacher and founder of ThinkCERCA [@thinkcerca], an online provider recently recognised by a major award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, believes that data is changing the way that educators think: From critical accountability to teacher accountability, to the way we arrange our time, our learning spaces, technology – data is disrupting everything (See for further reading).

She compares its effectiveness in education to our use of personal fitness trackers and health monitoring applications to build a meaningful picture over a period of time, guiding us towards making what might be life-changing choices. The more we know, the easier it is to work out a ‘best fit’ for individual students. As schools make better and more informed use of technology, the easier it is to deliver a genuinely personalised education.

Blended learning is the term used to describe what is usually a teacher-constructed model combining the best practices of the more traditional classroom with a range of online opportunities where students are encouraged to collaborate and to exercise some control over the time, pace, and place of their learning. The range of digital resources available to educators is enormous. We are now seeing teachers who began by incorporating YouTube clips and Ted Talks into their lessons moving on to the very sophisticated use of a whole host of collaborative sharing applications and widespread integration of social media; class Twitter accounts, for example, are commonplace and student bloggers in schools everywhere are sharing their ideas with the world.

Teachers who have been most successful in weaving technology into their lesson planning and implementation have been those who have done so to improve and build upon pedagogical best practice; the least successful have been those who have seen it as a costly add-on or optional extra, the alloy wheels or the tinted windows in the glossy brochure. Technology for the sake of technology is a waste of everyone’s time. Still, real blended learning derives from the knowledge and skills that have always been demonstrated by good teachers intelligently augmented by 21st Century technological advances.

For example, a teacher who might previously have created a printed hand-out with a series of questions for students to answer individually could now set up an online forum with many signposts to encourage contribution and generate discussion. Students don’t just see their own posts – they can see and respond to the posts of their peers, perhaps modifying their original thinking and coming to different conclusions as a result. Feedback is also shared: the teacher can obviously offer constructive guidance or criticism to the individual, but may also choose to offer open feedback which is potentially valuable to everyone in the group – and, of course, there is a lot of research demonstrating that the most effective feedback of all is that provided by our peers.

I feel certain that over the next few years we will witness the further significant widespread disruption of the traditional teaching model. The opportunities that technology affords us to capture, store and analyse data, to build personalised educational programmes to match the needs of the individual and to break down the walls of the classroom are unprecedented. Today’s students are already the beneficiaries of a concerted move towards blended learning; the students of tomorrow may well be educated in a learning environment their parents would scarcely recognise.

This article was originally printed in the January 2015 edition of UKEdMagazine

Click here to freely read the full version

Brian Christian has been Principal of The British School in Tokyo since 2012 and is a member of the COBIS Board. He writes a regular blog on educational matters: and can be found on Twitter @BST_Principal

You need to or Register to bookmark/favorite this content.

About Brian Christian 11 Articles
Principal at the British School in Tokyo since 2012 and a Board member of the Council of British International Schools. A proud Manxman.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.