How big data could transform classrooms

December 17, 2013

Personalized learning with digital devices could help discouraged students. (Getty Images)

Most people have had the experience of sitting in a classroom and having no clue what a teacher is talking about. Sometimes a student will raise his or her hand and ask for clarification. Other students will choose to say nothing, or let their minds wander. Year after year, students may get hung up on the same part of a lesson plan that is difficult to understand.

IBM thinks that doesn’t have to be the case. In its annual look at five innovations that will change the way we live, the company highlighted classrooms as an area ripe for new and great things.

IBM envisions a future classroom that is digital and tracked by instruments. Every student will have a digital device in front of them. When a confusing part of a lesson emerges, students can comment on their devices that something is difficult to understand. Researchers then aggregate those comments from hundreds of schools, and realize what parts of a lesson plan need fine-tuning. That leads to better instruction, and better-educated students.

Students who were too shy to raise their hands will feel more comfortable on a digital device, where communication with an instructor happens on a one-to-one basis.

In Gwinnett County (Ga.), IBM has predicted with better than 90 percent accuracy as early as fifth grade whether a student will complete eighth-grade math at a level deemed satisfactory by the county. IBM and the Gwinnett County public schools partnered to improve learning through big data and analytics.

One goal is to identify at-risk students early.

“Certain predispositions happen to students in terms of their motivations and such. If you can predict early enough a particular outcome, we can take particular measures — we call them learning interventions — that will mitigate that risk,” said Chalapathy Neti, director of education transformation at IBM Research.

Catching medical problems such as cancer early is crucial, and the same goes for identifying learning troubles. Preventing problems is better than treating a problem.

Neti expects education will become more personalized. For example, allowing students to learn at their own pace. With digital devices in a classroom every click can be captured, allowing researchers like those at IBM to analyze outcomes and better the learning experience.

A common refrain I hear is how education is ripe for disruption and innovation. It’ll be exciting to see how better education can make us all smarter, happier and more successful. Have a story of how technology is helping learning? E-mail it my way.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | December 17, 2013