The New Politics of Educational Data

A widening ideological divide emerges with powerful implications for the future of education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Bryan Alexander 

CREDIT WH.govAs winter gives way to spring in the northern hemisphere, we are witnessing the emergence of a new politics of educational data. Based on discussions I’ve conducted with leading thinkers and practitioners, I can identify two competing ideologies, with powerful implications for the future of education.

On the one hand there is a drive to reshape assessment, which we could call Testing 2.0, in the wake of general dissatisfaction with America’s No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies. In their place is a possible reduction of formal testing combined with increasing collection of student data throughout their schooling. Opposed to this is a nascent movement in favor of student autonomy and ownership of data as empowerment strategies.

The pro-data-gathering side would build substantial and probably centralized mechanisms to facilitate tracking and managing student learning, while their opponents would have IT departments help students shape their own, self-directed digital experience.

Explaining Testing 2.0, Audrey Watters argues that Silicon Valley and venture capital are deeply interested in data-gathering and analysis, informed in part by thinking descended from Taylorism in management and behaviorism in psychology. These concepts in turn shape an approach of using data to manage learning, as well as managing students and instructors, based on finely grained outcomes assessments. The results can then enter algorithms, which have the potential for automating some or all of that educational management.

Casey Green expanded this argument, noting that his Campus Computing Survey shows IT departments increasingly working on the expanding amount of data generated by student interaction with institutional systems. Learning management system (LMS) providers may start innovating and competing with each other to create data harvesting and analysis tools.

It’s important to remember that the recent generation of high stakes testing, represented by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, has reached its peak of influence and started to recede with the new ESSA law, according to Anya Kamenetz. Educators still see testing as vital, but are shifting from emphasizing major formal tests to more frequent querying of student learning through data gathering and analysis.

Opposing this vision of campus data analytics is one articulated by Will Richardson, whereby students receive not analysis so much as responsibility for their own data and learning. Richardson argued that adults in the world beyond school learn best by exercising their own agency, and that schools should apply this paradigm to students. Digital media has historically inspired this kind of learner autonomy in the work of educators like Papert; social media offers a technological basis for that in the present. In addition Richardson, Watters, Kamenetz, and Green raise serious questions about student privacy in a world of escalating dataveillance.

Richardson, Watters, and Jim Groom advocate one particular form of enhancing student agency over data: the domain of one’s own, a method whereby learners create, own, and shape their own web presence. Kamenetz sees the domain movement as part of returning students to ownership over the materials they produce in the course of learning, such as exams, lab reports, essays, projects, and their transcripts. Groom views the student-owned web domain as a way of giving students the space to learn technical and social skills around the modern web, based on a real sense of independence. Indeed, these skills may constitute fundamentals in an emerging digital literacy, especially in terms of student-managed social connections. Student-owned web domains are also bulwarks of privacy, teaching students how to better handle their digital presence in the real (cyber) world away from campus IT silos.

Kamenetz articulated another aspect of this learner autonomy thinking by urging a greater focus on qualitative instead of quantitative assessment. E-portfolios integrated into curricula and programs offer one good way of building up the qualitative side. Qualitative measurement lets us introduce human relationships into the mix. It also gives us a way of improving competency-based education (CBE), which Kamenetz sees as currently too predicated on quantitative measures.

Taken together, I find these views describing a widening ideological divide. Consider the LMS. One side sees that nearly ubiquitous enterprise technology as a useful tool for gathering student data, one which should grow in power and scope over the near future. The other side urges movement away from the LMS in favor of student-owned digital artifacts and web presences.

We could see this divide playing out in how campus IT should support student learning. The pro-data-gathering side would build substantial and probably centralized mechanisms to facilitate tracking and managing student learning, while their opponents would have IT departments help students shape their own, self-directed digital experience.

If I’m correct, this ideological divide may rise to prominence over the near- and medium-term future as we consider campus technology strategies over a variety of issues, from the Internet of Things to mobile devices, ERP evolution and the likely advent of next-generation learning environments. Assessment and data-gathering will be the crux.

Bryan Alexander, Senior Researcher at The New Media Consortium, is a writer, futurist, teacher, speaker, and consultant. For more information about these conversations and discussions on related topics about the future of education and technology, visit: http://bryanalexander.org/category/future-trends-forum/

 

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2 Responses to The New Politics of Educational Data

  1. Pingback: The emerging landscape of testing | Bryan Alexander

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