Data Ubiquity May One Day Revolutionize Education

By: Sebastián R. Díaz, Ph.D., J.D., AVP Marketing Analytics, American Public University System

Data UbiquityA great concern I have regarding the education of my young daughters is that my wife and I are trying to prepare them for careers and social contexts that might not yet exist—that we can’t fully anticipate. This concern extends well beyond typical finger-pointing at public schools.

As homeschooling parents, we are the educational system. And as we try to prepare our girls for an uncertain future, there is one aspect we both can reasonably anticipate. The day-to-day context of our daughters’ futures will be impacted greatly by the ubiquity of data.

The increased ubiquity of data in society will mirror patterns established by the computer. Much as my iPhone has disrupted economies for many other personal electronic devices, the ubiquity of data will render obsolete and simultaneously create entirely new products, roles and processes within organizations. And much like the smartphone, data will eventually catalyze revolutions. In some cases, they’ll be nuanced, while others will be glaringly obvious and disruptive.

A prime example of how data threatens to disrupt economies and social systems lies approximately 90 miles off the shores of Florida in Cuba. Although government authorities proclaim their struggle is to fight bourgeois imperialism, what they are actually combatting is the freedom of information—a fight they are surely losing. There is a good reason why Cuba’s leaders continue to severely limit Internet access to citizens. When I visit family members in Cuba, for example, it is not so much the dollars I take with me that erode support for the  government—it is more simply and importantly the comparisons and contrasts  I export back to them

Although America is a much more open society, here we, too, struggle with the rejection of evidence, most notably within our educational systems. Twenty years ago, the late Peter Drucker issued this prophetic warning about the emerging Knowledge Society:

“Indeed, no other institution faces challenges as radical as those that will transform the school. The greatest change, and the one we are least prepared for, is that the school will have to commit itself to results. The school will finally become accountable (1993, page 209).”

Drucker was not exaggerating.  I have endured prejudice throughout much of my educational career for being a statistician—for promoting evidence-based approaches to education. Much like Drucker, I too am not exaggerating.

Yet, the implications for such prejudice extend far beyond me and other statisticians. Educators, in particular, need to better prepare for the increased ubiquity of data for two reasons. First, if educators do not fully embrace data-driven approaches, we will soon find ourselves as obsolete and seemingly usurped as former employees making Kodak cameras and film. Second, and more importantly, as educators we need to revise our curricula to better prepare students for an increasingly data-driven world, regardless of whether they eventually become firefighters or financial analysts.

We can certainly leverage developments in computation to better prepare our students for this new data-driven world of increased transparency. Generally speaking, consumers in America have embraced the data-driven culture. When we make purchases online at Amazon.com or onground at our local Target, we understand that marketing specialists are collecting and analyzing data related to our behaviors and attitudes.

We not only embrace, but also expect and demand, that news outlets provide us up-to-the-minute updates similar to stock market performance. In professional sports, we not only pay close attention to the data , we  recreate imaginary games through  simulations that mix and match player statistics (e.g., fantasy football). And think of all the smartphone apps out there whose value resides in giving consumers personalized data.

While America has begun to fully embrace a data-driven culture, there is one notable exception. For some reason, education is different. We have shown a tendency to reject any and all attempts to quantify the quality of education, particularly within the not-for-profit sector. Consumers depend on Internet data, both quantitative and qualitative, that transparently evaluates the quality of service received from retailers. However, any similar attempts to evaluate efficacy of schools, teachers, or administrators is often viewed as destructive.

The necessary pieces are all there for promoting within education an appreciation for accountability. What’s more difficult is finding the glue that holds all these pieces together, namely the culture of accountability that promotes evidence-based, data-driven decision-making.

Inevitably, as we continue to fully embrace data in sports, entertainment, commerce, government, and our personal lives—we will unknowingly be calling into question, “Why not the same for education?” In fact, we may soon find that our students are more sophisticated users of data than are their teachers.

Transforming a culture is no easy task. Regardless, we can anticipate that competitiveness in the emerging Knowledge Society will demand increased skills for data-driven decision-making. I can’t predict whether my daughters will become physicians, scientists, teachers, or small business owners. What I can anticipate, however, is that their world will be filled with data, in new ways that I can’t even begin to imagine. And for that reason, my wife and I will continue to address the importance of data in our homeschooling curriculum. It behooves K12 and postsecondary educators to design their respective curricula accordingly, and to make students the primary consumers of data within schools.

Sebastián R. Díaz serves as Associate VP for Marketing Analytics at American Public University System (APUS). The Marketing Analytics function coordinates with internal stakeholders to design, implement, and evaluate systems and processes for data-driven decision-making. His research focuses on developing measures for Intellectual Capital and Knowledge Management, and on how educational policy is impacted by data utilization. Prior to coming to APUS, Sebastián served as Associate Professor in the College of Human Resources and Education at West Virginia University. Sebastián earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Marietta College, a Ph.D. in Educational Research from Ohio University, and a Law Degree from University of Akron. He lives in Brandonville, WV with his wife Andrea and their two girls. You can follow him on Twitter: @SebastianRDiaz.

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