Big data in education: Servant or master?

by Bernie Froese-Germain

The We The Educators (WTE) project, a partnership of Education International, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), was launched in May 2017 at Education International’s ‘Unite for Quality Education and Leadership’ Conference in Rotterdam.  The Canadian launch of WTE took place at CTF’s Canadian Forum on Public Education held in Ottawa in July.

In the broad context of global education reform, as the literature review states, WTE “examines the handshake between educational technology and the datafication of learning, and how these forces can influence the depersonalisation of learning and the deprofessionalisation of teaching.”

The literature review also acknowledges that

Educational technology and the associated production of data hold great potential in terms of supporting individual learner needs.  But the relationship between educational technology, data, personalisation, privatisation and standardisation needs to be considered with care; the potential for harm must not be overshadowed by the hype, and the broader purpose of education must not be lost. [emphasis added]

Writing in the Summer issue of the ATA Magazine (on the theme of “Assessment in the Era of Big Data”), Sam Sellar observes that, “Datafication is one of the most significant developments in schools around the world today.  Data in various forms – from attendance and behaviour records to grades and standardized test results – now shape the work of policymakers, administrators and teachers in the classroom.”  Sellar uses the metaphor of nested dolls to explain how data are being used in schools:

We can think about schools as sitting within a series of increasingly larger units that shape their work.  A school is like the smallest matryoshka doll in a set.  In Canada, for example, a school sits within a school board, which sits within a provincial education system and, in turn, a national approach to education.  The largest doll is the global space in which we now think about education.  For example, international organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) increasingly shape the work of schools through tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Data flow between each of these different nested scales and it is important to understand how this occurs and how it affects public education.

Pasi Sahlberg in another article reminds us that “big data is a good servant but a bad master.”  He outlines a number of reasons for this:

  1. A fundamental purpose of big data is to have enough information and process it fast enough to predict what is likely to happen next.  This is called predictive analytics and is the great promise of big data.  This may be worthwhile in meteorology or a corporation’s strategic planning, but it certainly may lead to odd situations in health care or education if not handled sensibly.
  2. When masses of data are collected in school by sensors, such as motion detectors, cameras and microphones capturing every child’s facial expression, social interaction and gestures every day, all year round, decisions made by smart machines may lead to unethical experimentation on students or even Orwellian surveillance of individuals’ privacy.
  3. Big data is also emerging through digital testing platforms and adaptive learning analytics systems (digital tutors); as masses of student testing data grow, so does the desire to harvest it for patterns.
  4. Big data normally reveals only correlation between events, not causation.  Correlation is important in understanding these relationships, but it doesn’t mean that one thing would cause the other.

Sahlberg proposes that we place a greater focus on what he calls “small data” which “emerges from the notion that in a world that is increasingly governed by binary digits and cold statistics, we need information that helps us to understand better those aspects of teaching and learning that are invisible or not easily measurable.”  At its core, small data speaks to the relational nature of teaching and learning, and how these important relationships can provide teachers with the knowledge they need to help their students to learn:

Teachers know the importance of human observations, face-to-face conversations and critical reflections in making sense of what goes on in classrooms.  Standardized tests or opinion surveys may help to identify some general trends, but they are not able to reveal deeper secrets of pedagogy.  Therefore, small data can be a good tool to find out what works best and why in schools.

The essence of the “small data” idea is captured succinctly in this quote by Alberta teacher and blogger, Joe Bower (who passed away in 2016), highlighted in the We The Educators videos: “Want to collect data on how children are learning?  Know them.  Watch them.  Listen to them.  Talk with them.  Sit with them.  Be with them.”

Bernie Froese-Germain is a Researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.


We The Educators — A new conversation about the future of public education

Education systems around the world are now witness to a variety of educational changes and improvements, numerous social and economic disruptions, and the onset of rapid technological advances that were unimaginable in the past. Within this tsunami of change, innovative teaching and learning practices that employ emerging technologies are sweeping into schools and classrooms with the broader goal of transforming student learning.

While technologies present education systems with both significant opportunities and challenges, some of the most profound developments are related to standardisation, personalisation, privatisation, and the datafication of learning.

To this end, Education International (EI), the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) identified a need to explore the interdisciplinary research underpinning technology-driven datafication and its effects on teaching and learning around the world.

We the Educators - Educational Technology and the Personalisation, Standardisation, Privatisation and Datafication of EducationThis literature review (PDF – 601 KB) attempts to provide a balanced view of the interdisciplinary concepts under investigation in order to inform an analysis of the converging fields of educational technology and datafication. It is part of a larger project, entitled “We the Educators” (, which brings the concepts explored in this research to life through video and animation in multiple languages.

It is hoped that this project will stimulate a rich public dialogue—and greater professional scrutiny—around the relationship between the datafication of education systems and the (de)personalization, privatization and standardization of student learning. We invite colleagues and advocates for quality public education worldwide to draw on this research and to use the videos to continue the conversations.

This project is the result of a global collaborative effort of many talented people including Graham Brown-Martin and teams from EI (Angelo Gavrielatos, Nikola Wachter and Mar Candela), the ATA (Dr Philip McRae, Dr Lindsay Yakimyshyn and Dr J-C Couture) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (Cassandra Hallett, Bernie Froese-Germain). The collective attention, analysis, support and imagination provided by all of these individuals has brought to life a project with the intention to inform and help to (re)shape the future of teaching and learning.

All of the partners in this project will continue to research and advocate for the conditions of professional practice required to create teaching and learning environments that advance the goal of strong publicly-funded public education systems: to educate all children and youth well.

Please follow, like and connect to these platforms and help us spread this conversation.


We The Educators  – Une nouvelle conversation sur l’avenir de l’éducation publique

Les systèmes d’éducation du monde entier sont aujourd’hui témoins de toutes sortes de changements et d’améliorations, de multiples bouleversements sociaux et économiques, et d’innovations technologiques rapides qui étaient inimaginables il n’y a pas si longtemps. Au milieu de ce tsunami de changements, des pratiques d’enseignement et d’apprentissage novatrices qui font usage des nouvelles technologies déferlent sur les écoles et les salles de classe avec le vaste objectif de transformer l’apprentissage des élèves.

Si les technologies présentent aux systèmes d’éducation à la fois des possibilités et des défis énormes, certains des plus grands bouleversements sont liés à la standardisation, à la personnalisation, à la privatisation et à la mise en données (datafication en anglais) de l’apprentissage.

Voilà pourquoi l’Internationale de l’Éducation (IE), la Fédération canadienne des enseignantes et des enseignants (FCE) et l’Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) ont senti le besoin d’explorer la recherche interdisciplinaire que suscitent la technologie éducationnelle et la mise en données, et leurs effets sur l’enseignement et l’apprentissage dans le monde.

wetheeducators-revue-de-la-litteratureLa présente revue de la littérature (PDF – 610 Ko) tente de brosser un portrait équilibré de divers concepts interdisciplinaires afin de guider l’analyse des domaines convergents que sont la technologie éducationnelle et la mise en données. Elle s’inscrit dans un projet plus vaste intitulé « Nous, gens de l’éducation! » (, qui présente les concepts étudiés ici de manière plus concrète à l’aide de vidéos et d’animations produites dans plusieurs langues.

Nous espérons que ce projet suscitera un débat public riche sur la relation entre la mise en données des systèmes d’éducation et la (dé)personnalisation, la privatisation et la standardisation de l’apprentissage des élèves, et qu’il encouragera un examen professionnel plus rigoureux de cette relation. Nous invitons nos collègues et les personnes qui militent en faveur d’une éducation publique de qualité aux quatre coins du monde à se servir de cette recherche et des vidéos afin de poursuivre le dialogue.

Ce projet est le résultat d’un exercice de collaboration international mené par un grand nombre de personnes aussi talentueuses les unes que les autres, dont Graham Brown-Martin et les équipes de l’IE (Angelo Gavrielatos, Nikola Wachter et Mar Candela), Cassandra Hallett et Bernie Froese-Germain (de la FCE), ainsi que Philip McRae, Ph. D., Lindsay Yakimyshyn, Ph. D., et J-C Couture, Ph. D. (de l’ATA). L’attention, l’analyse, le soutien et l’imagination de chacune de ces personnes ont donné lieu à un projet qui a pour but d’informer et de (re)façonner l’avenir de l’enseignement et de l’apprentissage.

Tous les partenaires du projet continueront d’étudier et de défendre les conditions d’exercice nécessaires à la création de milieux d’enseignement et d’apprentissage qui permettront aux systèmes solides d’éducation publique, financée par l’État, d’atteindre leur objectif : bien instruire tous les enfants et tous les jeunes sans exception.

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