In Praise of 'Small Data': How Targeted Analytics -- Not 'Big Data' -- Are Transforming Education Today

I hate buzzwords.

There sure are a lot of them in education technology -- probably enough to fill out a bingo card. Some of them have gained more traction than others, but there's one in particular that makes me cringe: big data. As in, "BIG DATA HAS COME TO EDUCATION!"

"Big data" might be the most hollow, misused term in education. For all of the chest-pounding about how big data has come to education, how are colleges and instructors actually using it --now, in 2014?

We've long heard that big data will revolutionize education the way it has other areas of our lives, like business, sports and medicine. All of the problems facing our education system could be solved if only we could take advantage of the piles of student data that exist, or that might exist if we had in place the technology to track it.

But the fact of the matter is that true big data does not exist in education today, and its long-rumored arrival is confusing the conversation about the use of analytics in education. Big data has become the euphemism for our greatest hopes for education -- and our greatest fears. But instead of thinking of big data either as certain doom or the white knight coming to save us, we should focus on how data and analytics can be used in achievable, responsible ways to support instructors and improve student performance. Today.

Big Data: Where we are (and where we aren't)
Real "big data" is massive and unwieldy: Think location information, spending history, medical records, dietary information. The idea is that if we know everything about a student, we'll be better able to help that student -- and future students who fit a similar profile. It's a great vision.

But we're just not there yet. Privacy remains a serious and understandable concern, with many education companies still needing to display the rigor, thoughtfulness and transparency in order to win the public's trust. There's also the question of implementation. Are our schools -- whether it's K-12 or higher ed -- really ready to start using all of this data to start shaping instruction? No one has been more vocal in their support of the digital transformation of education than I have, and even I have doubts and concerns about using data in this way.

So what can we deliver today? How can we use data in the classroom without all the baggage that comes with "big data"?

The power of analytics
One of the more useful trends in education today is analytic-driven instruction, the strategic application of analytics based on targeted sets of learning data -- things like assignment scores, time spent on the material, progress in an adaptive learning environment. What we're talking about here is the strategic use of learning data with a direct correlation to student performance. Think Google Analytics, not the Human Genome Project. Or, at the risk of introducing another buzzword, call it "small data."

Small data is more focused on examining precisely how well a student understands specific course material and on finding the best way to support that student's learning in the near term. These tools aren't paying attention to whether the student had Frosted Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast the morning before a test, but they're looking at what matters most. If an instructor sees that a student is spending a lot of time on homework but not performing very well on it, the instructor can quickly see that something might be wrong -- and get a clear idea of what that something might be and how to fix it. It's that simple.

I'd argue that small data is doing far more to advance the way we deliver instruction, particularly in higher education, than its bigger cousin. Colleges across the country are already using small data to gain insights that they can actually use to help improve student performance. After all, instructors are the core of the learning experience and should remain there -- even in the analytics-powered classroom. If data is cool, analysis is powerful. And action driven by analysis is transformative.

The future of data in education is enormously bright -- and admittedly big. As an industry, we're continuing to evolve, and while the future of "big data in education" is uncertain, the ability of analytics to support instruction and improve student performance is anything but. I love to think big, but I believe that for the moment, we should keep our focus where we believe it can make the most meaningful impact: on using intelligent analytics to make smaller bodies of education data as powerful and actionable. For the moment, we can be proud of that.