Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why Big Data

There are many fine fairy tales wrapped up in the big ball of reformy stuff rolling down Education Mountain these days. But one aspect of that reformy mess hasn't yet come up with any sort of plausible cover story at all.

National standards? I get that some people find the idea of country-wide consistency appealing. TFA? The idea that fresh-faced enthusiastic idealists can help in this country, kinda like the Peace Corps is attractive. Charter schools? A great harnessing of the American entrepreneurial spirit to provide unique educational experiences sounds exciting. Most of reformy stuff is sold with fairy tales which, while absolute unvarnished (well, actually, heavily varnished) baloney, have an understandable appeal.

Except Big Data.

Big Data has not even made sort of an attempt to create a rosy picture of our datafied future that would be enticing.

What is the appeal supposed to be? Am I supposed to imagine that I am sitting in my classroom, I am holding my head in hands thinking, "Damn, but after months of seeing these students face to face, I haven't the faintest clue what they have and have not mastered. If only there were a test I could send off to some super-cool data place far from here, and then they would send me back a report, and then I would know how my students are doing. Because what that job needs is somebody who is not in the room with them and never sees them and spends no time with them and is not actually a human being."

No, that's not the Big Data fairy tale.

Maybe it's supposed to be, "Give us all this data and we will be able to tell how students all across the country are doing, thereby effecting better instructional choices." Except that isn't a remotely convincing fairy tale, because in what universe does a classroom teacher say, "I can't really write my lesson plans for next week until I know how students in Alaska and Arkansas did on last spring's test."

Or occasionally we get something about personalized learning, which is just the newest version of the teaching machine idea floating around for decades. Because I can best compute a study program for you if I have information from millions of students who aren't you.

No, there's no convincing fairy tale about Why We Need Big Data, because Big Data has nothing at all to offer students, classroom teachers, or local school districts. There are only two remotely plausible reasons for the wholesale national collection, storage and sifting of student data.

1) Big Data wants the same thing in schools that they want in facebook and google. They want to collect maximum data because they can crunch it, use it for marketing purposes, and sell it to other people who want to do the same.

2) Big Data needs national data to make national decisions about national curriculum and national instructional strategies. The only school district that needs national data to make district instructional decisions is a national one.

We can continue to ask the Big Data giants like inBloom etc how much money they're making, why they get to end-run federal privacy rules, if they have solved any of the security problems, and who is holding the controls to this giant database. But the biggest question that remains unanswered with even the sort of pretty lie used to cover the tracks of other reformy stuffs is this one-- exactly WHY do we need to do this in the first place?

Within an hour of posting this, I was directed to this article (hat tip to Laura Sanchez) which clarifies one other reason to want Big Data in schools-- by the time you have graduated, Big Data will already be telling future employers whether they want to hire you or not. Big Brother, it turns out, was a slacker.

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