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Part 7 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series

It’s the fourth year in a row that I’ve chosen “data and privacy” as one of the most important ed-tech trends. (See 2013, 2012, 2011.)

I’m not sure if I expected things to change substantially after last year’s revelations of the massive government surveillance by the NSA. But I guess I’d hoped that folks might be a little more cautious, a little more thoughtful, a little more skeptical about data and technology adoption. Americans are aware and increasingly concerned about the amount of data collection – by the government and by businesses. Some 39% of Internet users globally say they’ve taken steps to protect their privacy and security online.

But what effect has this had on education and the current policy efforts that demand data collection? What effect has this had on ed-tech?

Perhaps this sentence from Politico’s Stephanie Simon in an article on data-mining in educational products gives us a hint at what the answers to those questions might be: “The NSA has nothing on the ed tech startup known as Knewton.”

The Ideology of Data


We’ve been told – by politicians, by the Department of Education, by tech entrepreneurs, by investors, by industry analysts, by researchers, by journalists, by pundits – that “more data,” more data analysis, and more surveillance of students and teachers will “fix education.” (Whatever “fix” means.) “More data” – and by that, we often mean “more standardized testing” – has been a core part of US education policy at the K–12 level for over a decade now, and the demand for "more data" is seeping into higher education as well.

The adoption of more and more technologies in schools has some arguing that we now have an opportunity to collect more data than what we could glean from all those standardized tests. As testing giant Pearson wrote in its report on the “Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education,”

“The devices and digital environments with which we interact are designed to record and store experiences, thereby creating a slowly rising ocean of digital data. We can imagine schools and individual learners using this ‘digital ocean’ to inform decisions about learning. As learners learn, they are able to collect information about their activities and get feedback about what they know and can do. Learning can occur in formal and informal contexts, and data can be drawn from both. In the digital ocean, we would expect to see data from all types of activities and contexts used to create persistent learner profiles, which could then be used to recommend future activity.”

A persistent learner profile. As in, this really will go down on your permanent record.

Although many companies are scrambling to cash in on the data-mining boom, one of the most vocal about the amazing and incredible and pretty much totally unbelievable potential for data and analytics has to be the aforementioned Knewton. Once a test-prep company, it now offers an “adaptive learning” engine that many textbook partners, including Pearson (which is an investor), are incorporating into their existing products. This year, Knewton announced partnerships with Cengage, with the Turkish educational publisher Sebit, with Microsoft, with Scandanavian publisher Sanoma, with publisher and former arms dealer Elsevier, with the Sesame Workshop, and with Latin American textbook publisher Santillana.

As Stephanie Simon writes, “The data analytics firm has peered into the brains of more than 4 million students across the country. By monitoring every mouse click, every keystroke, every split-second hesitation as children work through digital textbooks, Knewton is able to find out not just what individual kids know, but how they think. It can tell who has trouble focusing on science before lunch — and who will struggle with fractions next Thursday.” “We literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything,” CEO Jose Ferreira says in a video posted on the Department of Education website. "We have five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. …We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close.”

I call “bullshit,” but hey, what do I know. (Not everything. Literally.) Yet ed-tech startups insist that, thanks to them, we’re cracking the code of how people learn, something into which educators never had any insight until this very moment in history. As the co-founder of survey startup Panorama told The New York Times this fall, “Education is just starting to figure out what measurement actually means.”

Read the rest of this 6500-ish post here. Special thanks to Bill Fitzgerald for reading the Terms of Service.

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Audrey Watters


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