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Big Data, Big Brother, and the Nest

By January 31, 2014June 13th, 20165 Comments

“Big Data” is a current buzzword in education and in society in general. Look at the programs for most major educational conferences, and you’ll see any number of sessions focused on the use of data to improve student learning.

But big data goes beyond a school or district keeping some basic information about their students’ achievement. Big data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. It takes the power of massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers. Big data companies in the educational space include inBloom, Pearson’s PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus, among others.

As an educator, think of the power of being able to look at a data set of all elementary students in the country, including all of their formative and summative assessments, all of the various curricula they are experiencing in their classrooms, their behavioral data, health data, and IEP information. Add to that all of their demographic data and the effectiveness of their classroom teachers. To be able to immediately make sense of those data to diagnose and prescribe educational solutions for every student would be tremendously powerful.

Having access to this information sounds truly transformational. What could be the harm?

Here’s what gives me pause. Google recently announced that they had purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. I have a Nest thermostat in my home and I love it. It provides me with easy access to data about my heating and air conditioning usage, how my usage compares to previous years, and where I stand in relation to others in my area and nationwide. It also knows when I am home and when I am away and adjusts my home’s temperature accordingly. All of those things make me a more efficient homeowner and save me money. This dataset would be similar to the scope of data a school district might collect on students in its attendance area.

Buying my Nest didn’t initially cause me any real concern, but with Google’s purchase of Nest, my thinking has changed. Google already knows with whom I communicate via e-mail (Gmail), where I go in my car (Google Maps), what I watch on YouTube, what I post on blogs (Blogger), and what I search for on the web. Add all of that to the data my Nest is now providing to Google, and the data cloud of my personal information continues to grow.

Don’t worry, though, because Google keeps these data secure. So did Target. And Neiman Marcus. And the National Security Agency.

Am I ready to pull my Nest off of the wall? No. In my opinion, the actual realized benefits, so far, outweigh the potential risks. I’m proceeding down this path with the full realization that my data should not be considered totally private or secure, but trusting in the companies to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard my data.

As educators and parents, we have to consider the same benefit-versus-risk equation when thinking about student data. How valuable would big data be to educators throughout the country? What are the possible implications of a “national school database” being hacked (see this recent story by Education Week) or being opened up to commercial marketing use?

Does your opinion change when considering this through the lens of an educator versus that of a parent? Your comments are welcome.

A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works and Classroom Instruction That Works, and he was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough classroom observation software.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Janelle Burge says:

    Great article! It got me thinking just how easy it is to disclose information unknowingly. Also got me wondering how much personal information is already disclosed and out there.

  • Big data can be very powerful when trying to get a broad brush picture of what is going on. There is big data available that informs us, for example, about the prevalence of breast cancer in our community and the survival rates over the years. The trouble is, it doesn’t tell Mary Jones too much about HER breast cancer and what she should do about it. Similarly, big data in education may provide us with a generalized picture of what is happening in the country but it doesn’t tell Mrs Smith what to do about the ten year old boy sitting in the second back row who can’t keep his feet still, never completes his homework and seems to have significant problems with fractions.

  • Dawn Cole says:

    I agree that Big Data is extremely valuable. My school is in the process of collecting our student population’s testing data and accumulating them, so our educators can work in professional learning communities to assess our students’ achievements and gaps at the school level. Pondering over the information in regards to our grade level strengths and weaknesses is extremely valuable. Out of the five third grade classes, we can compare and contrast where we need to focus our teaching lessons that will benefit our students. We are able to differentiate instruction based on the collection of data from one central location. Overall, I am excited about the database of information. We have even entertained making the database available for everyone in our small district.
    Despite the benefit of helping educators monitor student achievements, collecting Big Data in a central location on a broader scale scares me. As educators, we are always warned against sharing students’ personal information. Therefore, I am hesitant to have all of their information available in a global forum. The bigger the database becomes means there is just too much risk to divulging our students’ personal information.

  • Melanie Schulz says:

    Its a really difficult question in my opinion. Part of the problem is that each of us has already created a massive trail of data and so even if we stop producing more immediately theres still so much out there that already has some value. And the other big problem is that very little data already has an incredible informative value (e.g. 4 random geo data points were sufficient to identify 95% of people) and your phone provider probably has a lot more than that on you. So Google is not actually our only problem.

  • Brad Avery says:

    I too pause when I think about big data and how much others can learn about us as individuals from that data. We leave data trails in all sorts of places and fashions, often unknowingly. Another problem is that as individuals we don’t necessarily control our data – some things we can have control or influence over, but for many aspects we have little to no control. In the long run, I think that big data can offer a powerful lens with which to guide instructional and learning efforts that can be tailored to each student – but we need to have a national conversation about data ownership, data sale and transfer, and the extent to which third parties can mine our data and target us for products and services. I think this conversation could drive greater awareness about how each of us generates data and thoughts about how freely we share that data.

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