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Making Big Data Actionable in Class

While most higher ed institutions are familiar with the relentless stream of information known as big data, the means of actually using that information to improve teaching and learning is still somewhat of a mystery. “College classrooms all over the world are continuously collecting data, much of which disappears into a black hole,” complained Eric Mazur a professor of physics and applied sciences and the area dean of applied sciences at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.

Mazur sees big data as a missed opportunity for higher education, and has made a concerted effort to put data to work in his classroom. "I’ve always been meticulous about classroom data in terms of collecting it, analyzing it, and comparing it from year to year," Mazur explained, "with the premise of using that information to improve the quality of education that we’re providing."

Mapping Classroom Discussions

Data, for instance, helps Mazur pair students together for in-class discussions. Using Learning Catalytics, an interactive classroom management solution, Mazur selects students who make the most appropriate discussion partners, based on data that shows how the students are performing on the classroom material. The system analyzes student practice quizzes and other data, then zeroes in on the geographic location of each student and sends out prompts like: "Please discuss your response with John Smith (in front of you) and Erica Johnson (on your left)."

"We can base the pairings on what the big data says about the students and the answers that they’ve provided," said Mazur, who has been tracking the results of this and other usages of big data in his classroom, but hasn’t officially published the outcomes yet. "We’re still collecting the data, but preliminary analysis indicates that we can significantly improve student learning by pairing the students up rather than having them choose their partners."

Mazur said big data can also help professors pinpoint groups of students who aren’t "getting" the material--particularly in large lecture classes where one-on-one interaction isn’t always possible or practical--and then appropriately reallocate teaching resources. "Instructors can be alerted on a map and shown the exact group of students who didn’t get the answers right," said Mazur. "The data is not only useful, but it’s also visible and actionable."

Where Does the Data Come From?

Gathering, reviewing, and using classroom data isn't as daunting as it may sound, insists Betsy Page Sigman, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in Washington, DC. Sigman has been studying the impact of big data on the college classroom for years, and was recently awarded the 2012 Faculty Award by IBM for her proposal on incorporating big data into the classroom.

In some cases it could be as simple as using a learning platform like Blackboard to determine when students are accessing an application, what modules they’re using, how long they’re logged in and active, and other key data points. As long as it doesn't cross any boundaries of student privacy, this type of information can help professors and "instructional technologists make better decisions about how to focus their efforts," said Sigman. "In some cases, they may find out that it’s time to cut costs by getting rid of an unused application."

Mazur sees real potential ahead for professors who want to interconnect their teaching environments with other classrooms--both on and off campus. A professor at a university in Italy, for example, will be able to tap the historical data collected by a U.S. university and use that information to provide students with a more worldly perspective on a specific topic, question, or concern. Cloud computing, he said, will help facilitate this move toward more open, shared classroom data.

"Unfortunately, there’s still no easy way to archive, collect, and compare that data independently or across geographical boundaries," Mazur admitted. "Until that information resides in a centralized location, much of it will remain unused and untapped.” But, he said hopefully, "We’re moving in the direction of not just having data at your fingertips for events in your own classroom, but also using it to compare what’s going on in classrooms around the world."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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