Monday, December 3, 2012

How to use Big Data in Elementary Education

Working towards the goal

The Big Data initiative is all the rage for commercial and industrial organizations. The term itself conjures up images of huge rows of high end hardware with lots of expensive software and amazing subject matter experts that are creating new breakthrough business opportunities. And while there is some truth in that vision, when we talk about Big Data and elementary education, we need to focus less on a data center image, and more on how the approaches found in Big Data can provide us with new information to assist in providing a better educational environment and improved results.

The fundamental idea behind Big Data is to combine a larger number of data sets into our analysis to get better information that helps improve the processes of the organization. And for elementary education, this holds great promise.

To start, most school districts in general have not seen much analysis and analytic work to find out what is really happening. So the idea of starting the process in earnest to assess results with more and broader input is a huge positive. For example, consider assessing the results of big annual standardized tests by analyzing students’ results from quizzes, homework problems, and other intermediate metrics in their classes and contrasting it with these standardized test results. Could we find a curriculum hole? Or a set of skills that aren’t developed well enough to succeed? By taking the Big Data approach of analyzing metrics that are allied with the standardized test to better understand why the test results are as they are, we can develop ways to improve the outcome.

It doesn’t take a new data center or huge investments in new staff and software to do this kind of work…. it takes initiative. By using existing data and information and combining it in new and different ways, you can get the benefits of Big Data without a lot of new costs. One issue may be moving your school toward more information being stored in classroom or grade management systems so that it can be accessed for this analysis. And with the “carrot” of improved understanding of student results, it may be easier to get better and more comprehensive use of these systems.

And it doesn’t stop with just grades and curriculum. Big Data can be used to help the district understand their budgets better, and find ways to save money. Consider a simple task like optimal bus routing. If a school has 7-10 separate bus routes each day, and a Big Data analysis finds a way to eliminate just one route, that’s a 10-14% savings right there!

Simply put, Big Data is really just a marketing way of talking about smarter use of existing data to save money and improve results. There are numerous ways this can help a school district, and with this next generation of tools that simplify the task and can handle many kinds of data, we can leverage this trend to meet the tight budgets and rising demands on primary education.

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