Big Data, Big Brother, and the Nest
“Big Data” is a current buzzword in education and in society in general. Look at the programs for most major educational conferences, and you’ll see any number of sessions focused on the use of data to improve student learning.
But big data goes beyond a school or district keeping some basic information about their students’ achievement. Big data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. It takes the power of massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers. Big data companies in the educational space include inBloom, Pearson’s PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus, among others.
As an educator, think of the power of being able to look at a data set of all elementary students in the country, including all of their formative and summative assessments, all of the various curricula they are experiencing in their classrooms, their behavioral data, health data, and IEP information. Add to that all of their demographic data and the effectiveness of their classroom teachers. To be able to immediately make sense of those data to diagnose and prescribe educational solutions for every student would be tremendously powerful.
Having access to this information sounds truly transformational. What could be the harm?
Here’s what gives me pause. Google recently announced that they had purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. I have a Nest thermostat in my home and I love it. It provides me with easy access to data about my heating and air conditioning usage, how my usage compares to previous years, and where I stand in relation to others in my area and nationwide. It also knows when I am home and when I am away and adjusts my home’s temperature accordingly. All of those things make me a more efficient homeowner and save me money. This dataset would be similar to the scope of data a school district might collect on students in its attendance area.
Buying my Nest didn’t initially cause me any real concern, but with Google’s purchase of Nest, my thinking has changed. Google already knows with whom I communicate via e-mail (Gmail), where I go in my car (Google Maps), what I watch on YouTube, what I post on blogs (Blogger), and what I search for on the web. Add all of that to the data my Nest is now providing to Google, and the data cloud of my personal information continues to grow.
Don’t worry, though, because Google keeps these data secure. So did Target. And Neiman Marcus. And the National Security Agency.
Am I ready to pull my Nest off of the wall? No. In my opinion, the actual realized benefits, so far, outweigh the potential risks. I’m proceeding down this path with the full realization that my data should not be considered totally private or secure, but trusting in the companies to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard my data.
As educators and parents, we have to consider the same benefit-versus-risk equation when thinking about student data. How valuable would big data be to educators throughout the country? What are the possible implications of a “national school database” being hacked (see this recent story by Education Week) or being opened up to commercial marketing use?
Does your opinion change when considering this through the lens of an educator versus that of a parent? Your comments are welcome.
A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works and Classroom Instruction That Works, and he was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough classroom observation software.