21st Century Education – It’s All About the Data!

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In God we trust – all others bring data!  In the years since Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education (2004-2009) uttered these words, the internet has quite literally, changed the world.  Information technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and innovative firms are dreaming up new ways to embed the interner into our lives.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Uber, AirBnB, are the most visible manifestations of a tech infused world!  These apps (and many more) now have a profound impact on our daily lives – and now the world of education is playing catch up!

The promise, of course, is that technology, after re-inventing the way we live, will similarly re-invent the way we teaching and learning happens around the world.

This short article looks at how technology is re-shaping the world of education, and what challenges still remain so every human being on the planet can benefit.

Let’s start with the demographics of education:

There are about 1 billion K-12 students worldwide, and the college population is projected to exceed 260 million students worldwide by 2025 – that’s a huge market by any measure… in just the last few years, scores of VCs have invested billions of dollars in hundreds of edtech firms, all looking for a piece of the action in 21st century education – where learning is rapidly moving from the classroom to the computer, print to digital, one-size-fits-all to personalization, and guesses to predictions!

The big technology companies are hardly standing still – they all have a focus on education – Microsoft (Office365 / SharePoint / Surface), Google (Apps / Classroom / Chromebook), Apple (iTunes, iTunesU, iPads, iEverything), Amazon (Kindle / Whispercast), LinkedIn ( Lynda.com)  — each application and tool produces terabytes of data every day as teachers and students use these services….

In addition, there are the content dissemination companies – Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Udemy, etc. – they are flush with VC money, and are constantly trying out new business models to get their VCs the much desired “exit” – each of these “platforms” produces further gazillion bytes of data as they seek to “democratize” learning….

And then we have the afore-mentioned start-ups!  Today, there are over 500 “start-up” companies providing a range of products and services to schools and colleges – from content and curriculum to teacher tools (lesson planning, assessment, classroom management, content marketplace) to school operations (finances, government reporting, communications, networking, hardware, LMS, SIS, persistence and retention) to student aids (college prep, test prep, e-portfolios, career planning, e-textbooks, book rentals, games, social learning, tutoring) … and the list goes on….

It’s boom time in the world of edtech!

Of course, booms don’t last forever, and the edtech world is no exception – in the next few years, an oligopoly will form, with around 20 independent edtech companies worldwide, who together with the big technology players, will command over 80% of all money spent on edtech worldwide.

If there is one prediction we can confidently make, it’s this: the data explosion will continue unabated, with ever more data being produced by every more apps by ever more people in every corner of the planet!

So, while we are moving towards universal access to the internet, and content (both paid and free) is growing unabated, and our world gets increasingly drenched in data, the question now is — how do we extract value from all this data to actually improve educational outcomes?

Before we attempt to answer, let’s take a look back in time….

In the very old days, we had gurus and chelas (teachers and students) with each guru in charge of a small cohort of chelas throughout their formative years; the gurus (and chelas) learnt how to deliver (and receive) instruction that matched the individual learning styles of each chela, and everyone was happy!

In the recent past, the teacher – student ratios were still manageable, and teachers followed the same cohort of students for several years, so could provide some level of personalization through years of observation and experience.

In today’s world, there are too many students, and too few teachers who have the time or the expertise to keep up with the explosion of information, the various means of acquiring knowledge, and the various ways this knowledge can be tested and proved in the real world.

We need to have the ability to analyze ever growing mountains of data to gain perspective on what happened in the past, what’s happening now, and most importantly, what will happen in future, so we can actually help the education consumer, the student, succeed and thrive in his or her chosen careers!

We need some powerful answers, and we need them fast!  Enter the world of big data, machine learning and predictive analytics!

The consumer world has already made big strides in dealing with big data – from consumer goods to media companies to telcos to transport to hospitality, very smart people are using predictive analytics to figured out how to turn the zillions of terabytes of data generated by Facebook posts, Google searches, Uber rides, credit card purchases, airline bookings, dating sites, movies watched, websites visited… into “actionable data” to figure out how to “message” their intended targets with ever more precision – so they can reduce customer churn, attract new audiences, satisfy more users … all with the sole purpose of maximizing profits for their shareholders.

While the education world has been slow in comparison, there are nevertheless rapid changes afoot.  In this brave new world, the following scenarios are already unfolding, some faster than others:

a)    Adaptive Learning – ‘smart textbooks’ will interact with students, and based on how they are learning, will provided real-time (and ongoing) feedback on how to improve understanding, memory, test scores, and accelerate mastery of the course material

b)    Gamification – good video games challenge the player and provide satisfaction as the player moves from level to level – the textbook world is all abuzz now looking to incorporate game elements into online learning; the evolution here is to move games from mere “skill and drill” to actually “teach” concepts

c)    Course & Career Advising — based on the student’s progression through the subject matter, ‘smart systems’ will recommend learning paths (courses to take and courses to avoid) to get the student closer to his or her goals

d)    Retention & Graduation — based on student demographic data,  on campus and academic progression, teachers and staff will get early warning indicators on which students are struggling in which areas, and can deploy the appropriate intervention to help these students finish college and graduate

While there are a few adaptive learning companies (Knewton and others) who are doing great work here, there is still lots of work to be done to really analyze data to learn, understand and predict the future, so outcomes can be maximized for the maximum number of students!

I predict that we’ll see the emergence of “data demons” – a handful of companies that have cracked the code of making sense of the enormous quantities of data we are drenched in – in order to improve both the process and outcomes of education (K-12, college, vocational, and life-long learning).

This is a once-in-a-generation race where the winners will help the world close the huge gap between available technology and what’s needed to realize the promise of predictive analytics – if bio-tech companies can now do genome sequencing in a fraction of the time and cost of what it took just a few years ago – imagine what we could do when the next breed of start ups utilize software and machine learning to propel the art and science of teaching and learning!


About Jay Visvanathan

Jay has extensive experience in the world of education in business development, strategic alliances, and channel management.

During his career at Sun Microsystems, Pearson and Cengage Learning, Jay has successfully managed global business development for a $500M line of business, doubled market share from 30% to 60% through innovative solution partnerships, and driven annual double-digit revenue growth through channel partners in emerging markets.  Jay has led initiatives to establish presence in vocational training in emerging markets.  Jay is “plugged into” an extensive global network of influencers and policy makers, and has spoken at various education conferences around the world.

Jay is a keen observer of edtech trends and innovations, a thought leader, and an executive who is passionate about leveraging technology to benefit teachers and students everywhere in the world. Jay can be reached at [email protected]