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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.