The words ‘evidence-based’ are at the centre of the ongoing push to improve student learning and school improvement. This is a welcome focus and helps put the evaluation of both the learning and teaching in the centre of the work schools and systems do. We need to consider what this evidence base is and the robustness of the evidence.
Over January, I was watching the Australian Open Tennis. Several of the top players have new technology embedded in their racquets. A computer, in the handle of the racquet, captures the entire match in real time, every shot, speed, angle of returns, response times and so on. At the end of each match the player and his or her team sit down and analyse the data in order to improve the player’s performance. You can only imagine the size of the data and the power it brings to the process. Using big data is not new. What is new, however, are the ways we can collect and aggregate the data in real time.
My daughter gave me a Fitbit for Christmas. From what I gather I wasn’t alone in receiving this gift. Everywhere I go I see people with Fitbit bracelets collecting all sorts of data about the wearer’s physical activity during the day and sleep patterns at night. This capability is very quickly revolutionising the medical field, the health and fitness business and our lifestyles.
The collection of personal data is not confined to physical data: the New Yorker article ‘We Know How You Feel’ explores how computers are now able to accurately read our emotions. Many companies are now starting to use this information to target advertising based on our emotional reactions and will likely see the advent of the “emotion economy”. Think about the applications of ‘emotional data’ for marketers, business, health providers, even the educational sector.
We are at a point where data and technologies are stretching our thinking on both the nature and use of evidence. What really surprises me is how much incidental discussion and reflection takes place amongst those who use the technology. The ideas and suggestions from other on how the user might use the data and even improve their stats widens the knowledge pool.
By comparison to the above the evidence base for learning and teaching is very thin. Most of the evidence is test based, after the fact analysis. High stakes testing distorts the improvement picture because much of the data is open to misuse and misunderstanding. Assessment tasks are generally used to make judgements about student performance and ignore the critical role of the teacher. Paper-based tests are still the lifeblood of the student assessment process. They are often removed from the actual teaching-learning process which it seeks to evaluate. Even at formal parent-teacher feedback sessions the data sets are limited, and a one-way process from teacher to student.
We need to identify how we collect data on the teaching process. While we are seeing increasing instances of teacher observation, instructional walks and data walls, much of the data collected is not in real time and not always linked to student achievement. Good teachers are already constantly assessing student understanding during class time. The question is, how can we use technology to assist teachers in collecting this data more accurately and effectively? Imagine if we could collect real time information about students’ emotional reactions to the learning and teaching process and use this to inform teachers’ work in real time.
I think we have much to learn about evidence of improving teaching and learning from the developments in big data and ways that the data is captured and analysed. The power of the evidence collected lies not in the volume of the data or the power of the device, but in the analysis of the data. Individuals and teams can access the data when, where and how they want and need it. It helps provide real time feedback to the user and encourages collaboration. Ultimately it has the capacity to put evaluation of learning and teaching in the centre of the process, not as outcome at the end of the process.
I’m not sure if there is an education Fitbit, but I’m sure it will be here soon. As the devices get more powerful, more embedded and more connected it won’t be too far into the future. Having this sort of capability for all learners but particularly teachers, will think, be a game changer for our understanding of teaching in a contemporary world. We will see a dramatic shift in collaboration and real time intervention.
It is clear that these developments are unstoppable. I hope the education profession will embrace these new capacities and show how they can and should be used. We can’t afford to let the emotional economy do it for us.