A big data approach to learning?

By Robert Hickson 29/10/2012

Ericsson is promoting a “big data” approach to education with its Future of learning video  and report [PDF]. They have a vested interested in promoting mobile-enabled learning, but there are  interesting concepts in their report.  They highlight how analytics can be used to tailor learning for each pupil (or staff member), drawing on adaptive learning platforms developed by firms such as Knewton, and the on-line teaching resources being provided by the likes of the Khan Academy and iTunes U.

Firms selling adaptive learning programmes report very good learning improvement, but they also don’t appear to be able to assess long form answers or creativity well. One blog post also notes that such approaches focus on developing tools to improve passing existing tests. No doubt technologies will improve, but it would be wrong to think that technology will single handedly create a bright new learning future. Data and analytics help, but the fundamentals of the education system, not just the tools, also require refinement.

One of the commentators in the video gets too carried away by declaring “knowing something is probably an obsolete idea”. Sure the current education system may not be well aligned with today’s employment needs. But finding out stuff when you need to know it is a purely utilitarian view of knowledge, and seems to leach out the creativity that education commentators like Ken Robinson identify as being what is lacking in the current system.

Dale Stevens was interviewed on Nine to Noon, and he makes some good points about how US schools at least are under performing.  His book Hacking your education is soon to be published, and he founded UnCollege. He is someone who consciously dropped out of the American school system and taught himself – unschooled rather than home schooled – because he found the system didn’t meet his learning style or needs.

Dropping out of the system can work for a small well motivated and affluent minority. But the future of learning and society would be better served by changing the system rather than making it easier to opt out. As NZ’s Secretary of Education rightfully indicated, we should have high expectations that the school system works well for all.

How we learn is changing. Better technology has a place, but so too do people with a passion and skill to teach. We are inspired more by people than technology, and that seems to be the key to learning.