What Analytics Aren’t

The new VP of analytics at a leading edtech company talks data.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mike Sharkey

CREDIT Blackboard AnalyticsAnalytics aren’t a cure-all for education institutions. They don’t solve problems automatically. There isn’t an instruction manual on how to properly use data. In general, “analytics” is the process by which we turn raw data into valuable information. Analytics is a tool for problem solving. In most cases, regardless of its application, it requires human intervention. Additionally, analytics software isn’t magical. There’s no alchemy where we create substantive information from vapor. If a class is taught face-to-face with physical textbooks and papers submitted via email to the instructor, it is difficult to derive an accurate model around classroom engagement.

In education, analytics can help you break down the problem and look at all of the pieces, but we need to rely on faculty, advisors, dedicated administrators, or the students themselves to take action and make a difference.

So why do I start off this column with a big wet blanket of reality about analytics? It’s because I want to be very clear about the capabilities of analytics. In my new role as the vice president of Analytics for Blackboard, I talk to lots of folks about data. I communicate the benefits (and realities) of analytics to my colleagues and our customers and partners around the globe. I’m constantly making sure that the message about analytics is clear so that it doesn’t get mangled in the telephone game of life.

Recently, I spoke with a number of people on our team who work with clients about our analytics offerings. The crux of my conversations was to be crystal clear about what analytics are and what analytics aren’t. Those very qualified folks will be the ones engaging with clients, and I need to make sure everyone is on the same page. That’s why I start off with what analytics aren’t. Successful analytic initiatives typically involve a systematic, step-by-step progression toward a goal. Every customer engagement I have worked on in my 25-year career (14 in higher education) has been unique and was treated as such. I’ve always said that analytics complement the human decision-making process — they don’t replace it. That means we have to account for human variance. We can’t rely on the methodical consistency of software.

So, if we started with what analytics aren’t, what are they? I’ll give two bullet points on that:

  • Analytics allow us to understand data. That understanding can inform people (teachers, advisors, administrators), provide insights that might not be obvious, and can help guide the actions we take.
  • Analytics can also help teachers, advisors and administrators act more efficiently by surfacing information that might otherwise take time to extract (think about counting posts in a discussion forum).

I can probably slice these into a few more points, but let’s stop there for now. As an instructor, analytics arm me with information that I can use to make better decisions, and they can also offload administrative tasks so that I can spend my time on the important things (like teaching and giving feedback).

In addition to my sessions with our client-facing team, there were two other items recently that inspired this column. First, there was a New York Times’ opinion piece called ‘How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers‘. The piece espouses my top personal philosophy — achieving balance. Data, analytics, and measurement are good things, but we can’t go overboard. A dearth of standardized testing and ratings systems is a stark symptom of an over-reliance on data. The second item is Phil Hill’s ‘It’s Called Data Analysis And Not Data Synthesis For A Reason‘ post on e-literate. Phil uses a TED talk from a computational geneticist named Sebastian Wernicke. The key takeaway from the talk, in my mind, is summed up in this quote:

“Data and data analysis, no matter how powerful, can only help you taking a problem apart and understanding its pieces. It’s not suited to put those pieces back together again and then to come to a conclusion.”

Again — it’s a great idea to focus on what analytics aren’t. In education, analytics can help you break down the problem and look at all of the pieces, but we need to rely on faculty, advisors, dedicated administrators, or the students themselves to take action and make a difference. Remember that the next time you have a conversation about analytics in K-12 or higher education. Think about the problem you’re trying to solve. Believe it or not, that problem isn’t “analytics”. It’s more likely a higher-level issue such as retention or effective teaching, and analytics can help you solve it.

Mike Sharkey, VP of Analytics at Blackboard, is responsible for their suite of analytics products, including predictive, learning and warehousing analytics tools used by higher education institutions to help retain students, improve the teaching and learning process, and answer insightful questions about students, courses and programs. 

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Globally Competent

From Boston to Botswana, developing truly effective cross-border collaborations.

GUEST COLUMN | by Marisa Wolsky

CREDIT DesignSquadAs we face the beginning of the 21st century, economists and government agencies are putting forth an urgent call for a new engineering workforce. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that technical skills alone aren’t enough to compete in a global economy. The call for equipping young people with the skills and dispositions necessary to live in today’s world—defined by the digital revolution and unprecedented human migration—is dominating educational discourse. The National Research Council, for example, has deemed American students’ lack of knowledge about other countries a “critical shortcoming,” and has voiced its strong support for the teaching of other cultures, particularly at the K-12 level. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a plan to strengthen U.S. education and advance U.S. international priorities, including developing global competencies and engagement with other countries for all students.

What does the process in which students work collaboratively across distance and cultures look like?

What are the abilities students need to develop in order to become globally competent? Drawing from the capacities defined by the CCSSO: Ed-Steps Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning and Project Zero-Harvard University’s Global Thinking Routines, these include the ability to:

  • Investigate the world: develop an interest in people and places around the globe
  • Understand that people live in different environments and have different resources
  • Recognize different perspectives—both their own and those of others, and how these perspectives can change over time
  • Listen to and communicate with different audiences, treating them with empathy and respect

One way for students to develop these abilities is through projects that connect U.S. students to their peers in other countries. The J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative, designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens, is one such project. WGBH’s Design Squad Global is also creating virtual communities (Design Squad Global Clubs) where eight-to-13-year-olds in out-of-school programs around the world work together to solve real-world problems. By collaborating on engineering issues that are meaningful and socially relevant to people from different parts of the world, the young engineers and inventors in these clubs begin to discover that they are global citizens who can take action and make a difference in the world.

What does the process in which students work collaboratively across distance and cultures look like? In Design Squad Global Clubs, students at the Phatsimong Youth Centre in Gaborone, Botswana were matched with students at the Promise Neighborhood afterschool program in Boston, Massachusetts. Over the course of 10 weeks, they worked together to identify needs in their communities that could be addressed through engineering solutions. At the Phatsimong Youth Centre: “Botswana has the second highest prevalence of HIV in the world…Youth are still dying because of poor medication adherence. Youth don’t take their medication for a variety of reasons, including side effects and forgetfulness. Due to this, one of our groups was inspired to make a pill reminder.” At Promise Neighborhood: “We’re [designing] a homemade air conditioner that can be used without electricity. We chose this because in Boston the weather can be temperamental, and most buildings do not have central air conditioning because it is too expensive and not needed all year round.”

With the increased globalization of our world, this is an ideal time to develop projects that connect U.S. students to their peers in other countries. 

Throughout the process, the students in Boston and Botswana answered cultural questions and shared interests. The students were very surprised that they were more similar than different. Students in Botswana learned that students in Boston did not use expensive materials in their engineering projects, but used recycled materials like they did. (They had thought that “the kids in Boston would be better than us.”) They also didn’t expect the Boston students to like their invention, saying it felt “amazing” to get positive feedback from them on their design. The students in Boston were interested to know that the students in Botswana spoke English and had access to different kinds of materials for building than they did. They also appreciated the different and interesting approaches to engineering the students in Botswana took.

With the increased globalization of our world, this is an ideal time to develop projects that connect U.S. students to their peers in other countries. Developing truly effective international collaborations requires that we build an evidence base about when and how to acknowledge and accommodate differences both across and within cultures. WGBH would welcome hearing about other promising practices in cross-cultural collaboration to both to improve the Design Squad Global Club model and to inform the field.

Marisa Wolsky is an Executive Producer at WGBH Educational Foundation with over 20 years of experience turning STEM content into entertaining and educational media and curricular resources for kids and their educators.

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Better Resources

What is the state of digital media in higher education?

GUEST COLUMN | by Patrick Merfert

CREDIT videoblocks 2016 state of digital media in higher edWe conducted the 2016 State of Digital Media in Higher Education survey after hearing from students, faculty, and administrators that digital media and visual literacy were key pieces to developing graduates that could be competitive in today’s job market.

Insights were gathered from more than 300 current educators, administrators, and students that represented more than 200 universities including: The University of Pennsylvania; Johns Hopkins; Brown University; University of California, Berkeley; Wake Forest; and New York University.

The survey found that 91 percent of faculty and 76 percent of students agree that including digital media in course materials improves engagement, yet only 20 percent of faculty reported using digital media in all lectures, and 18 percent said they rarely or never use digital media.

Edtech providers should strive to not only provide better training resources, but also build simplicity and intuition directly into their product and user interfaces.

The survey surfaced that a lack of university provided resources was a primary culprit; 44 percent of faculty and 30 percent of students said their universities could provide better digital resources. As a result, there is a real mismatch between both students and faculty on visual literacy standards. 45 percent of students believe that they are highly literate, with only 14 percent of faculty agreeing.

Similarly, half of faculty see themselves as highly literate, with only 23 percent of students agreeing. The solution here is to provide better digital media resources – schools spend millions on new facilities, but skimp on content. It’s like buying a Tesla and never plugging it in.

Finally, when faculty were asked to describe their biggest frustrations with education technology they listed learning how to use it – including finding the time to learn and ineffective training. To solve this, edtech providers should strive to not only provide better training resources, but also build simplicity and intuition directly into their product and user interfaces.

Despite these current challenges, digital media in higher education has progressed substantially in the past decade. The feedback from both educators and students is encouraging, with an overwhelmingly positive sentiment regarding the impact that digital media can have in educational environments.

To realize even greater benefits from digital media, administrators and educators need to work collaboratively to promote digital literacy, universities need to provide adequate funding for digital media resources, and technology providers need to build more intuitive products and training materials.

Patrick Merfert is Director of Demand Generation – Education & Enterprise at VideoBlocks. To read additional findings, download the full 2016 State of Digital Media in Higher Education Report here.

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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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Smart Spending

Guidelines for funding classroom technology.

GUEST COLUMN| by Mike Patterson 

CREDIT CDWGTeachers and school administrators nationwide believe that bringing technology into classrooms boosts educational outcomes for students. Districts often purchase the next big device to “revolutionize” learning. In fact, overall education technology spending will reach $19 billion worldwide by 2019, according to market research firm Futuresource Consulting. But if schools do not put the right processes in place, technology can be a wasted investment.

Deciphering which products and services will truly help enable students and teachers achieve their educational goals can be challenging.

Deciphering which products and services will truly help enable students and teachers achieve their educational goals can be challenging. Many schools want to take the fastest-fix route, buying whatever devices are least expensive or come from the name brands they know best. However, patience in making classroom technology buying decisions is critical. Here are the key tenets to consider when evaluating potential investments, vendors, products or devices:

Ensure classroom technology meets educational goals: Many schools spend thousands of dollars on new devices because they are the “next big thing” without considering whether those devices address their specific goals. This is the costly one-size-fits-all approach that often leads to disappointing outcomes that do not address teacher or student needs.

To avoid investing in products that fail to meet educational requirements, schools should carefully research their options. Talking to technology experts and peers from other schools that have faced similar challenges is a great way to find solutions to meet their specific needs. After this initial research phase, schools should take the time to evaluate each option – brainstorming with teachers and staff to determine which tools will meet their IT needs and educational goals.

Embrace quality instead of quantity: Having too many devices or applications operating in a school environment can overwhelm networks, which can also lead to cyber security lapses. Identifying the right device and then determining the number of devices necessary to meet each school’s needs helps mitigate the deployment of an overwhelming number of tablets, laptops and applications, which often have overlapping capabilities.

Talking to IT service advisors about which devices each school currently uses and what the staff would like to achieve with new products is a crucial first step. Before finalizing each purchasing decision, schools should evaluate which products they should keep, replace or remove entirely and where the new devices and services fit in the current infrastructure.

Keep in mind that purchasing products from differing vendors can lead to compatibility issues; schools should work with an IT service advisor to avoid these complications.

Factor in professional development: When creating a budget and timeline to fully outfit a school or district with new technology, school boards and district leadership must account for the cost and time needed to effectively prepare and train teachers. Without considering these factors, teachers will be left frustrated with technology and solutions they don’t know how to use, wasting the most valuable time as they attempt to navigate this change on their own.

If a school is preparing to integrate new devices, a team comprised of district leadership, curriculum and instruction, as well as the district’s technology team should collaborate and plan professional development sessions for district leaders, teachers and staff. This will provide an opportunity to not only discuss the visions, the “why”, behind the process, but also give them a timeline of when the new solutions will be implemented. The IT and curriculum departments should also coordinate training necessary to demonstrate how to effectively use technology in the classroom, as well as offer support to answer any questions teachers might have as they become acclimated to the new technology.

Fund the new technology – creatively: To support the right technology, schools might need to look beyond the existing district budget. Schools can apply for grants, securing funds for devices and applications. Resources such as GetEdFunding offer a collection of grants created by teachers for teachers, from K-12 and higher education. GetEdFunding’s database aims to provide school administrators with funds to expand innovative projects, close the technology gap between children from differing backgrounds and circumstances, as well as prepare students for the future workforce by teaching them complex skills. With additional resources like these, schools can grow their budgets and their possibilities.

Technology can have a powerful impact on our schools, teachers, and most importantly, students. Schools must decide both what that technology looks like and how it plays a role in the classroom. By establishing educational goals, embracing quality products, enabling professional development and determining new ways to fund technology, schools will make smarter IT decisions while enhancing educational outcomes.

Mike Patterson is a K-12 Education Strategist for CDW-G. A former educator, he currently works with district and community stakeholders on state and national initiatives, driving strategic and positive curriculum and instruction change. Link with him.

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