Data, Research, Education and … Hunches

A national gas station chain opens a neighborhood store, adds a customer loyalty program, puts up a website to collect registration data, gets people to swipe the card at the pump whenever buying gas, while inside asks again for the card and/or zip code, pays out their incentives: coffee, frozen drinks, snack packs, cookies, crackers, 2-liter pops. A video camera records it all.

Another day, a researcher working on a project to determine the snacking habits of obese people versus non-obese people has just struck a gold mine if they can agree to responsibly treat this data in the aggregate only. (Didn’t the gas station promise not to share the data when they collected it? Maybe. Or maybe just not to sell it to companies looking for more consumers ). Canvassing begins, more data gathered, and correlation theories processed.

A couple months ago, in an entrepreneurial startup weekend, publically available data was called upon to inform or power a new phone app with predictive capabilities for determining the rise or fall of stock prices. That one’ll be hot. Publically available data …

Try this idea: Find existing data useful for research, and then create the questions which could be answered by its careful analysis.

Call it “Backward Research.” Start with a data set first. Ask questions later. Find data in existence, not just to be mined, but to be curated, aggregated, built-upon, re-defined, and continually expanded to provide answers to new questions, questions we weren’t capable of even dreaming until we’d gathered the data.

In the years ahead more and more data constructs will be created which are ‘living,’ persist over time, and therefore will be useful for ongoing research.

Education data is such data. Who owns that data? Who should own that data? We’re calling this burgeoning field learning analytics, but do we know what we’re really talking about?

K-12 students will be tested via computer in most of the United states starting 2014. Those results, mapped to the Common Core standards, will over time form a ginormous data repository. What rules will govern access to that repository? Should the state governments own it? Federal?

To what purposes could we put a repository of testing information for each child’s educational career ? I remember the Twitter backchannel asking those same questions during the Educause Midwest 2009 Keynote. Nancy Zimpher, then of University of Cincinnati, was telling us about a “virtual backpack” of student data which travels with the person from cradle through career. Nope, not science fiction.

While the future which the Tweeters in the room that day were cynically pronouncing was one of categorization and the creation of societal strata based on past performance such as late reading, or non-social kindergarten behaviors, which then solidified the students’ role in society forever, I would sound the alarm that now is the time to develop policy around such education data, policy which prescribes its appropriate and inappropriate use, policy which gives it an accountable owner, one beyond reproach, one with the best interests of the individual in mind. This is not the government, my friend. The government’s mission is to have the best interest of society in mind.

That data is here now. It will be aggregated. It will be researched. It should be researched. How and by whom are the questions…

There are dots to be connected. I would feel most comfortable if they were connected by researchers and educators at responsible higher ed institutions. Over at Music for Deckchairs, in the context of creating and curating educational content, Kate Bowles is making this connection, “The sudden partnership between venture-funded educational startups and traditional elite universities has thrown down a big challenge to less flexible models of higher education, especially outside the U.S. And the fact that we’ve typically bundled content, learning and accreditation under the broad heading “education” doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to keep them all contained in this way indefinitely.”

Michael Feldstein, commenting on Blackboard strategy via Ray Henderson, says, “…there are huge potential benefits to a true SaaS [Software as a Service]platform in terms of the value of the data that can be gathered. With analytics and adaptive learning being the huge buzzwords that they are, the future success of learning technology companies will largely depend on their ability to capture the data exhaust from students’ and teachers’ interactions on the platform and harness it to produce better learning outcomes.”

In all of this, who will speak for the student?

More Reading:

Researchers Digitize AIDS Quilt to Make it a Research Tool,” July 9, 2012.

Blackboard’s New Platform Strategy,” Annotated Link Here – Feldstein Quote. August 19, 2012.

The revolution might be televised,” July 22, 2012. Kate Bowles.

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