Big Data and Education

The data explosion witnessed in recent years and driven by the adoption of new technologies is shaping the way we interact with systems and society. It is also set to exert a profound impact on
many areas of human endeavour, from science to business and parts of the public sector. Yet the education system (together with the health care system) is resisting to change, holding on to teaching programmes that have not been updated in more than a century, says Jan Muehlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe, while speaking at the conference "Big Data and Education: What's the Big Idea?" held at UCL on the 13th of May.

This is likely to change in the near future because of the convergence of two main trends: society’s demand for analytical skills and the rise of the moocs.

Gabriel Hughes, VP of Analytics at Elsevier (an academic publishing company), describes the requisites of his recent hires by stressing the importance of interdisciplinary "Big Data" skills such as programming, statistics and business acumen. He echoes the demand of a global marketplace that is seeing the rise of the ‘data scientist’, a knowledge worker equipped with the right tools and mindset to sift through huge amounts of data, discover insights and translate them into actionable advice.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and nimble responses to change are in stark contrast with monolithic teaching programmes, adds Mr. Muehlfeit, who laments: “if you collaborate at school it is considered cheating, if you do the same at Microsoft I will make sure to give you a big bonus at the end of the year!”. In other words, both the technical and the so-called ‘soft skills’ (people skills, time management, communication, etc.) that are so vital in society need to be fostered in education, and the current system is not working well enough.

Part of the reason for this apparent inertia is a lack of competition: a business must ‘innovate or die’, whereas education has been throughout history the playing field of a relatively few established  institutions. Massive open online courses (moocs) are starting to challenge this status quo, says Claude Kirchener, director of research at Inria (the French institute for research in computer science and automation).

More than 2 million people have registered on Coursera in the last 6 months, eager to learn free of charge from the best teachers in the world, and all from the comfort of their sofas. The large costs of a formal education and the dubious return on investment of many courses (alas concentrated in the areas of arts and humanities) are likely to drive some people away from universities. This will in turn put pressure on institutions that will need to innovate if they want to attract students, possibly beyond the stale marketing messages that fill the London underground in time for college applications.

Part of the problem with academic institutions originates from factors that are unlikely to be fixed by an increase in competition. Universities are judged on the basis of a research excellence framework that takes into account academic publications and non-academic impact, such as spinoff companies and collaborations between businesses and research centres. As a consequence, the incentive for researchers and academics is to publish in the best journals (as the motto ‘publish or perish’ epitomises) and exploit the commercial applications of their research. Teaching duties are often regarded as little more than a nuisance.

Regulators should push for a renovation of teaching programmes at all levels, but this should not stifle the research activity that is so vital for society’s long term growth. Perhaps a solution would involve surrounding traditional education programmes with an ecosystem of connected applications, from video lectures to shared computing resources, from virtual study groups to services that connect businesses to education and research.

For traditional institutions, this could mean turning the threat of competition into an opportunity. Moocs are for the first time in history providing global-scale pedagogical experiments, continues Claude Kirchener. This allows teachers to perform A-B tests and to tweak their lectures in the same way that companies like Google and Amazon continuously tinker with their algorithms based on users’ feedback. For nimble and innovative startups like Eulergy, this is the time for shaping the future of education.

Categories: talk

Tags: university, talk, big data, ucl, education, moocs

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