CoSN 2014: Smart Data vs. Big Data

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April 1st, 2014

Last week, I attended the 2014 Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) Annual Conference, a conference about leveraging technology to create engaging learning environments. Key themes included student privacy, leadership, and data use in education and personalized learning.

The conference included a thought-provoking debate between Bob Wise and Yong Zhao on “How Do Big Data and Digital Learning Improve Education?” Wise is a former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. Zhao is associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon. Mr. Zhao and Mr. Wise debated if and how “Big Data” could be useful for personalizing learning. I agreed with both perspectives to an extent, but the term big data perpetuates the idea that quantity is better than quality.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “big data” as “data of a very large size, typically to the extent that its manipulation and management present significant logistical challenges.” Do we need any more logistical challenges in education? By the definition alone, Big Data doesn’t sound incredibly helpful, and as someone who’s worked in education for 13 years, I’ve learned that Smart Data is much more useful than Big Data. To me, Smart Data is the collection of the right data, but it is also about presenting the right data to the right people at the right time.

Having a large volume of data isn’t enough. It has to be the right data that’s accessible, engaging, and insightful. As Keith Kreuger, CEO of CoSN, pointed out recently, “School districts have always had a lot of data. The problem is that it’s been largely siloed and inaccessible.”

What we need in education today is Smart Data: information that makes sense, and that can be used to improve student outcomes. Smart Data safeguards student privacy, saves valuable time for teachers, and ensures states purpose tax dollars toward effective programs.

As it pertains to personalized learning, part of the experience is being able to make decisions and set goals using the right data in understandable ways. Smart Data, in which is high-quality and actionable data, helps support that.

Education data is in the spotlight. As of 2013, 41 states had dedicated funding to data systems. If we want the education data and personalized education movements to succeed, we must focus on quality, not quantity. Smart Data, not Big Data, can help personalize education.

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