Will Big Data Change Education?

How will big data analytics reshape how we teach and how we learn; and how will it change what we learn?

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This is one of the questions posed in ‘Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think’ (2013) by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger Kenneth Cukier.

Below is my summary of how they answer this question:

You might like to read this post first: What is Big Data?

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier start off by arguing that public education treats children like ‘another brick in the wall’, seeing them as empty slates on which instructors may make their mark – but this mindset is an artefact of the constraints in which the school system exists – we mass produced graduates because for centuries there was no other way to deliver individualised instruction to a broad population. The old system was based around ‘small data’ which slotted students into set paths, big data favours a more flexible and open approach to education:

How big data will change the process of education?

  • First – we know more about individual differences because we can track student performance better – continuously through the learning process – educational data moves from stock to flow.
  • Second – we can tailor lessons to the needs of the individual, not the general average, which is actually no one!
  • Third – we can more easily learn what works best in teaching, the data enables a feedback loop.

‘The result is that education is one of the most significant areas where big data will make its mark. It will improve learning, which in turn will improve society and economic prosperity. Just as importantly it will improve student’s self-esteem.’ (202)

In short, the education system can be redesigned around handling individual differences, rather than trying to eradicate them or treat them as if they don’t exist.

How big data will change what we learn in education?

As to the question of what we learn – the increased role of big data in society means we will need to become more comfortable dealing with probabilities rather than certainties… and we will need to learn that we know far less than we think!

Big data means that many jobs – many of those involving making decisions – will be automated in the future, but humans have unique capabilities such as creativity and originality, irrationality and the ability to break radically from the past – so education should foster these things rather than seeing education as a process of pouring knowledge into the skulls of students.

Conventional education may have difficulty of breaking out the old mold of education, and digital disrupters are playing an insurgent role….

China’s Social Credit System: Big Data meets Big Brother

Most of us are used to having our daily activities constantly monitored and evaluated – what we buy, how much tax we pay (or not), what television programmes we watch, what websites we visit, where we go, how ‘active’ we are’, who our friends are and how we interact with them – such monitoring is now done routinely via Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Now, imagine if all of that ‘big data’ was fed to the central government, and mashed into a single number which would be our ‘citizen score’ which in turn would measure the value of our contribution to our nation and which would inform everyone of how patriotic, politically sound and trustworthy we are as a person.

And imagine further if that ‘citizen score’ determined our eligibility for certain jobs, our creditworthiness, where our children could go to school, or even our chances of getting a date.

This isn’t fantasy, China is in the process of developing such a Social Credit System, which will be mandatory by 2020. Presently, the Chinese government is liaising with various big data companies and trialing out schemes in order to figure out what kinds of data to collect, and what algorithms to use to determine an individual’s final ‘citizen score’.

The Trial Run…

One company which is set to be a major player in running China’s social credit system is Alibaba, which is currently trialling a ‘credit ranking scheme’ which people can voluntarily sign up to.

The scheme gives people a score of between 350 and 950, based on data collected from five major categories…

  1. Credit history – does the person pay their bills on time?
  2. Ability to fulfill contractual obligations on time
  3. Personal information – mobile phone number, address
  4. Behaviour and preference – such as what products someone buys – people who buy nappies are given a higher score, because parents tend to be more responsible, people who spend 10 hours a day playing video games are given a lower score.
  5. Interpersonal relationships – who your friends are and what you say on social media — those who ‘big up the Chinese economy’ get a higher score, for example.

It’s the the fourth and fifth categories above which are the most interesting… the first three are pretty standard (insurance companies in most countries will use these to assess premiums), but the last two involve turning personal comments into social and political capital…. they really politicize the personal!

When China’s social credit system ‘goes live’ in 2020, private companies will essentially be spying for the Chinese government – and negative tweets about Tiananmen Square for example, will hurt your social credit score.

FFS DO NOT thumbs up the tank guy!

And if your friends post negative tweets about Tiananmen Square, well, that will also make your score go down!

Rewards and Punishments

Volunteers who are currently signed up to Alibaba’s trial get rewards if they get a high credit score – preferential access to loans if they get a score above 600, and if they get to 650 they get faster check-ins at hotels and airports.

When the system eventually goes live in 2020, people with lower citizen scores will be punished – with slower internet speeds, restricted access to restaurants and will lose the right to freely travel abroad, for example.

As the government states the social credit system will ‘allow they trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step’.

Is it that different to what we’ve got in the West?

While this may look like a horrific meeting between George Orwell’s 1984 and Pavlov’s dogs, maybe this isn’t that different to western big data management systems?

We’ve had credit scoring for 70 years now, that doesn’t exist in China yet, so this could just be a rapid development of what here has evolved by stealth.

And as to using personalized data….. individuals already rate restaurants, movies and books, and each other!, and various companies routinely scrutinize big data….maybe we are also getting closer to the Chinese concept of ‘life scoring’ as our real world and online worlds merge.


Modified from The Week, November 2017

Book – Rachel Botsman (2017) Who Can You Trust: How Technology Brought Us Together – and Why it Could Drive Us Apart


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