Big Data and the Schoolhouse

NumbersA third grade teacher stands next to one of her students and, using a microphone attached to a tablet, listens to the child read. The software program on the tablet immediately notes how many words were read correctly and colors the student’s reading chart green, orange, or red. The teacher then chooses a story from a drop down menu and adds it to the child’s homework. She moves on to the next student.

This is a scene from the promotional video from inBloom. InBloom is one of the next-wave of educational tools that seek to unite individualized instruction and data-driven student assessment by integrating instructional software and student data. It’s been heralded by Bill and Melinda Gates and adopted by several public school systems.

The promise? Fast and efficient personalized instruction that simultaneously aggregates data about student skills at the individual, classroom, school, district, or state levels.

It’s really worth watching inBloom’s promotional video because it raises huge questions about the fundamental nature teaching and learning, the role of technology, and the appropriate use of data in the schoolhouse.

The teachers in this video have lots of data and spend lots of time on their inBloom tablets “personalizing” instruction and communicating with parents. They can see each student’s academic and behavioral profile at the swipe of a finger and can even change seating assignments or student groups based on any number of data points provided by the software. 

But what you won’t see is very much time actually engaging with students. Even more alarming, the product seems to encourage teachers to understand their students primarily if not exclusively through collated data points, as if these constituted the “real” student, perhaps even more “real” than the actual flesh-and-blood person with whom each teacher (theoretically) interacts daily and actually has a human relationship.

Those of us who have taught for any amount of time come to understand fairly quickly that learning is much more a mysterious unfolding than a predictable and controllable path. Being in relationship —with one another, with ideas, with struggle and joy and boredom, with our singular selves and the multitude of our fellow students and teachers—this is the essential ingredient that no amount of data can adequately capture, describe, or replace.Nor should it.