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Will E-learning Platforms change Education?

Big data enthusiasts argue that the greater data collection and analysis potential provided by e-learning platforms such as Khan Academy and Udacity provide much more immediate feedback to students about how they learn, and they thus predict a future in which schools and private data companies will work together in a new educational ecosystem…

This is a continuation of my summary of  Meyer-Schonberger and Cukier’s in their (2017) ‘Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight.

You might like to read this previous post first – How will Big Data Change Education? (according to the above authors).

The advantages of e-learning platforms over traditional education

Khan Academy is well-known for its online videos, but just as important to its success is the software which collects data about how students learn, as well as what they are learning.

To date, Khan Academy has data on over a billion completed exercises, which includes information on not only what videos students watch and what tests scores they achieve, but also on the length and number of times they engage with each aspect of the course, and the time of day they did their work. This enables data analysts to deduce (probabilistically) how students learn most effectively, and to provide feedback as to how they might improve their learning.

The Kahn Academy is just one online learning platform, along with a whole range of MOOCs offered through Udacity, Coursera and edX, as well as SPOOCs (small, private online courses) which are collecting huge volumes of data on student learning. The volume of data is unprecedented in human history, and Cukier suggests that this could change the whole ecosystem of learning, incorporating third parties who do the data analysis and with the role of instructors (‘teachers’) changing providing advice on which learning pathways students should adopt.

At least some of the Khan Academy Data on learning is available to third parties to analyse for free, and information personal to students is presented to them in the form a dashboard, which allows for real-time feedback to take place.

Cukier contrasts the above, emerging ecosystem of online learning, to the present ‘backward’ way in which data is collected and managed in the current education system as backward (he actually uses the term ‘agrarian’ to describe the process) – in which students are subjected to a few SATs tests at predetermined stages, and this score is ‘born by them’ until the next test, which makes labelling by teachers more likely.

In addition to this, the school day and year are run in a 19th century style, pigeon holed into year groups, pre-determined classes, students exposed to the same material, and with digital devices often banned from classes. All of this means data cannot be harnessed and analysed.

Where does this leave existing institutions of learning?

Schools and universities are well poised to harvest huge amounts of data on students, simply because they have 1000s, or 10s of 1000s of students enrolled.

To date, however, these traditional education institutions have shown a very limited ability to collect, let alone analyse and use big data to better inform how students learn.

The coming change will affect universities first – these have mature students, and this audience is more than capable of digesting insights about how to learn more effectively… the big universities where fees are expensive and students don’t get much back in return are poised for disruption by innovators…

Some of the very top universities seem to have got the importance of BIg Data – MIT identified EdX as a crucial part of its forward strategy in 2013 for example, but some of the universities lower down the pecking order may find it difficult to compete.

The response of some forward looking schools is to embrace elearning – recognising the importance of getting and utilising more data on how students learn – Khan Academy is partnered with a number of schools, for example Peninsula Bridge, a summer school for middle schoolers from poor communities in the Bay area. – Cukier cites an example of one girl who managed to improve her maths due to this (again, evidence cited is almost non existent here!)

The chapter concludes with imaging a future in which schools are just part of a broader ecosystem of learning – which includes a much more prominent role for private companies and where data plays a more central role in learning.


There are number of factors which may contribute to schools’ inability to harness big data:

  1. Time limitations – as Frank Furedi argues in ‘Wasted’, the function of schools have expanded so that they are now expected to do more than just educate kids – thus an ever larger proportion of schools’ budgets are taken up with other aspects of child development; combined with meddling by successive governments introducing new policies every few years, schools are caught in the trap of having to devote their resources to adapting to external stimuli rather than being able to innovate.
  2. Financial limitations/ equality issues – correct me if I’m wrong, but any online course tailored to GCSEs or A-levels is going to cost money, and this might be prohibitively expensive!
  3. The negative teacher experience of governance by ‘small data’ – there is a staggering amount of small data already collected and teachers are governed by this – it might actually be this experience of being governed by data that makes teachers reluctant to collect even more data – no one wants to be disempowered!
  4. Child privacy rights – there is the not insignificant issue of letting big ICT education companies have access to our children’s learning data!


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Socrative for Teaching and Learning A-Level Sociology

Socrative is a real-time feedback learning-tool which allows teachers to quickly produce multiple choice, true/ false or open ended questions in order to assess student understanding.

Personally I think Socrative is the most useful online learning tool available to teachers and students studying A-level subjects, much more useful than Quizlet, for example, although it still has its limitations.

How to use Socrative

NB – You might like to just go sign up and try it out, unless you’re a total luddite (in which case go sit down with your tech-bod at school) you’ll find Socrative so easy to use…..

Teachers sign up for a ‘teacher account’ and can creating quizzes in advance of the lesson, or use the quick quiz option to ask one question at a time in class. Teachers will also need to create an online ‘room’ where students can join to take part in the quiz – you’ll need to call the room something simple live ‘Dave’s Sociology Room’. (Actually ideally something shorter than that – Maybe DSOC1, for example).

Once the teacher has started a quiz, students can access the quiz room by any browser, via the Socrative homepage or by the Socrative app if installed on phones/ tablets, and by entering the teacher’s ‘Room Name’ (which will be up on the screen once the quiz is live).

The teacher has the option to make progression through questions either 1 then all pause, or self-paced, and you can put in right or wrong answers, and add in explanation for why a particular answer is correct.

I’m not sure what the upper limit of entrants is, but Socrative has handled more than 20 in my class easily. The beauty of Socrative is that once students have completed all the questions, you get an overview of what questions they got right or wrong – here’s an example from a recent ‘education policies‘ recap I did at the beginning of one lesson the week after we’d taught social policies (in fairness to my teaching, questions 4 and 8 were designed to be tough! Also note that for question 9 I hadn’t set a ‘correct answer’ so it hasn’t colour coded).

clearly questions 4 and 8 need reviewing


And you can dig deeper into responses for each question too, simply by clicking on the question links above…. please note that in order to get a correct answer, students had to identify all three of the polices, and only those three!

Socrative questions

Incidentally, another great use for Socrative in sociology is simply to type in the same questions used in ‘opinion surveys’ to get an immediate feel for how students’s values correspond to that of the nation… here’s a sample of today’s students showing that they’re anti-immigration, but probably not quite as intolerant as their grandparents….

immigration survey

In the background of Socrative

Once you’ve signed up as a teacher, you get presented with the options below.. I won’t explain how it’s done, it’s so easy to use!

socrative review

Uses of Socrative for teaching A level sociology:

  • As with Quizlet, it’s great for recapping basic knowledge… however, an advantage over quizlet is that it allows you to enter much more challenging multiple choice questions, with answers close together to make students think.
  • You can tap into analysis and evaluation skills, simply by alternating multi choice knowledge questions with open ended questions asking students to simply justify their answers.
  • You can use the open ended question function to get students to write Point Explain Elaborate Evaluate essays collaboratively, live online.
  • With the quick question function, you can get students to select the best answer!
  • You get immediate feedback about what students need to review.
  • Socrative stores the reports for you, even with the free version.
  • You can collect a lot of data about formative learning here, especially if you can figure out a way of combining it with previous attendance, effort etc…

The Limitations:

  • For the free version, it only works when it’s live, you have to actually run it! The quizzes aren’t there all the time for constant review as they are with Quizlet.
  • Whose got time to actually use the data collected?

P.S. If you want to use the above education policies quiz – here’s the code…



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How will Big Data Change Education?

Big Data will make Feedback more focussed on effective teaching rather than student progress, it will make learning more individualised, and it will enable us to make probabilistic predictions about what programmes are best for different students.

Big Data EducationThis is according  to Big Data enthusiasts Meyer-Schonberger and Cukier in their (2017) reprint of their 2013 original ‘Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight…

This post is a summary of the section at the back of this book, which focuses on big data and education (introduction to this section is here).

An excellent counter point to the outrageous, almost entirely speculative and sweepingly general claims made in this book  is Neil Selwyn’s ‘Is Technology Good for Education?‘ – the later is based on stacks of peer-reviewed evidence, the former on speculation only.

How will big data change feedback in education?

In the small data age, data collection in schools was largely limited to test scores and attendance, focussing on collecting standardised data on student performance, with feedback being almost exclusively in one direction – from the teachers to the schools to the kids and their parents – what is not measured is how well we teach our kids, or how effective different teaching techniques are in facilitating student progress.

Big data changes this by datafying the learning process – for example, e-books allow us to track how students read books, what they take notes one, at what point the give up reading, what sections they go back and check – thus we can measure how effective different books are, or different passages within books are, at helping students to understand knowledge, which can be used as a basis for immediate and differentiated intervention by teachers.

We could also use e-books in conjunction with testing to measure the relationship between different textual materials and the ‘decay curve’ – the rate at which students forget knowledge, which might be useful in improving test scores.

Companies such as Pearsons and Kaplan are very involved in producing e-books, but at time of writing (2017) even in America only 5% of school text books are digital.


In schools, the education which we are exposed to is standardised into a one size fits all package, tailored to a mythical average student. Learning has barely evolved from the industrial era – the materials students are given are identical, and the learning process still works essentially like an assembly line, with all students being paced through a syllabus at the same rate and learning benchmarked against a series of standardised tests.

All of this is tailored towards the needs of the teachers and the system, not the needs of the students.

However, in the Big Data age, following the American economist Tyler Cowen, ‘average is over’, and following Khan Academy founder Sal Khan ‘one size fits few’. The problem with the current, industrial era education system is that very few people actually benefit from it – the bright student is bored, while the weaker understands nothing. What we need is a means of flexibly adapting the pace and content of teaching to better fit the needs of individual students.

Tailoring education to each student has long been the aim of adaptive-learning software – an example of this is Carnegie Learning’s ‘Cognitive Tutor’ for school mathematics which decides which math questions to ask based on how students answered previous questions. This way it can identify problem areas and drill them, rather than try to cover everything but miss holes in their knowledge, as happens with the traditional system.

Another example is New York City’s ‘School of One’, a math programme in which students get their own personalised ‘playlist’ determined by an algorithm, each day, with maths problems for them suited to their needs.

Such individualised learning systems are dynamic — the learning materials change and adapt as more data is collected, analysed and transformed into feedback. More advanced material is only provided once students have mastered the fundamentals.

All of this is based on the idea of the ‘student as consumer/ client’ – one argument is that ‘if we can rip our favourite music and burn it into our own playlist’, why can’t we do this with education? A second argument is that in any other field of business, consumers provide feedback on products and the manufacturers improve (and increasingly personalise) the products to meet the demands of diverse consumers…. Adaptive learning should transform education into something which is more responsive to the needs of students/ consumers, rather than it being led by unresponsive systems and teachers.

Supporting evidence for adaptive learning:

In a trial of 400 high school freshmen in Oklahoma, the Cognitive Tutor system helped them achieve the same level of math proficiency in 12% less time than students learning math in the traditional way.

According to Bill Gates, talking in 2013, students on remedial education courses using adaptive software outperformed students in conventional courses and colleges benefitted from a 28% reduction in the cost per student.

Probabilistic Predictions

Big data will provide us with insights into how people in aggregate learn, but more importantly, into how each of us individually acquires knowledge. These insights are not perfect – they do not give us cause and effect relationships – Big data insights are probabilistic:

For example, we may spot that teaching materials of a certain sort will improve a particular person’s tests scores by 95%, but if we make a recommendation based on this, it will not work in 5% of cases.

This is something we are going to have to learn to live with, and parents and students are going to have to bear the risk – for example, all Big Data can do is to tell ‘clients’ that if they study this particular course, then there is a 70-80% chance they’ll see ‘x’ amount of improvement.

However, some probabilities will be more certain than others, and so for at least some specific recommendations, we can act with reasonable certainty.

We are going to have to get over seeing through the world through the lens of cause and effect…

Criticisms of Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier’s views on how Big Data will transform education

Personally, as a teacher myself I’m sceptical when non-experts start making sweeping predictions about the future of education based on speculation, especially when one of the claims for the Big Data is that it provides empirical insights, such speculation is hypocritical, precisely because it’s not based on any actual data!

The idea that transnational technology companies are going to help everyone in education is nonsense – they are profit driven, the fact that profit comes first, and that this will be a limiting factor in how data is used in the future  is not even mentioned.

They see ‘teachers as the enemy’ – as a barrier to Big data, this is highly dismissive of a group of people who have gone into a job to benefit children, where I doubt that people for tech companies do not have this as their primary motive – also see below, for an alternative explanation of their criticism to ‘teachers as a barrier’ to ed tech companies playing more of a role in education.

The ‘one size fits all model’ might be dominant in education because with a teacher student ration of 1-100 (in colleges) teachers literally cannot meet the individual needs of individual students. There simply isn’t time for this, along with the need for teachers to keep on top of the knowledge themselves, and keep up to date with technological changes, institutional-legal requirements, and do all of the (still necessary) marking of students work.

Related to the above point, making teachers analogous to other professionals with clients, I don’t believe there’s any other field of work where professionals are expected to deal with 100 clients at a time and personally interact with each of them every single day in a meaningful way… dealing with diverse and complex knowledge (rather than specialising in one particular thing, i.e. a haircut, or a financial advice for example) – while it might be fair to expect teachers to respond to ‘clients’ demands, 1 teacher cannot do this with 100 students. The ratio needs altering (1-10 maybe?).

The authors cit very few examples of peer-reviewed evidence to back up their claims.

Further Reading…

Problems of the role of technology companies in education

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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?

Big Data.jpg

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….