In the old days of smaller classrooms, teachers were able to focus on each of their students’ strengths, weaknesses and progress, giving extra time to each student in the areas in which they needed the most help. But in the era of classroom overcrowding and standardized testing pressure, that level of individualized instruction has become nearly impossible for teachers to provide on their own. Enter technology: now teachers, administrators and school districts are adopting education technology that uses data to try to simulate the experience of each student having their own personal tutor.
"The current education system is built for the industrial era," says William Zhou, CEO of Chalk.com, a company that makes education software that’s used in over 20,000 schools. "You may have heard of the factory model where each student is assigned to their age group and information is disseminated downwards at the exact same pace. It worked for that era, but now, how do we adapt education to today’s knowledge-based economy?" Zhou, like many other experts, thinks the answer can be found in data, and he points to the groundbreaking work by a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who were able to predict which middle school students would be dropout risks by combing through attendance records and other data. "Imagine the other insights we can unlock and give back to teachers and administrators about what’s going on in their classrooms," Zhou says.
So how are school districts, administrators and teachers using data now? With the rigorous testing that's already in place in America's public schools, the raw data about students' strengths and weaknesses is already there. What technology, in the form of software known as Learning Management Systems (LMS), can provide is an easy way for teachers to access that data and more, and make decisions based on it, whether it's to give a student extra instruction in one small area of weakness within a subject like math (often with the software providing those booster materials), or to decide with confidence that a student should skip a grade. "Many districts are very advanced in these areas already," says Susan McLester, a former teacher who is now an Ed Tech expert and journalist. "Technologies such as LMS collect data on test scores and other outcomes and let teachers quickly see both class-wide and individual trends in learning, and then customize pathways to accelerate or remediate — we call it intervention now — students as needed," she says.
One of the biggest benefits of these technologies could be the end of one-size-fits-all instruction. "We can keep track of the learning styles and interests of students to enable the delivery of not one lesson for everyone, but instead a couple of lessons tailored to different groups of students, so that they can learn at a different pace," says Zhou. "This will let students retain information better and develop a stronger interest in what they’re learning."
These innovations also aim to make teachers' jobs much easier. "Right now it’s very difficult for educators to keep track of the students who are being left behind," says Zhou. "But with data, we can take a lot of that weight off of educators’ shoulders; we can determine which students are struggling with a concept, and which are excelling at it. More importantly, we won’t be adding extra work to the educator’s day," he says. "With the right technology, we can empower teachers and leverage their professional judgment to create a personalized learning environment."
And it's not just traditional areas of study that these technologies aim to help: it's the complete student. "These systems can also collect data on attendance, behavior issues, club participation and more for a fairly complete picture of a student," McLester says. "Many subject-specific software programs also track student performance data and automatically adjust activities to their skill levels." Basically, if a factor impacting a student's school life can be tracked, it can now be analyzed by software and presented to educators in an easy, dashboard-like way to help create an individualized plan for each student.
But what about the traditional "spark" that happens when a student discovers a new interest that could become a lifelong passion? Surprisingly, data technology can help with that, too. "Personalized education will let students develop their interests earlier," says Zhou. And the earlier a student discovers an area of interest or passion, the deeper they can delve into it as they progress through the middle and high school years.
These types of Learning Management Systems, and education tech in general, are, of course, big business right now. According to Fortune Magazine and CB Insights, venture funding for ed tech is expected to reach $2 billion in 2015, up from just $385 million in 2009. And data-driven instruction will play a large role, according to Zhou. "Every school system is thinking about this problem," he says. "They all know the solution is to personalize education to each learner. Until recently it’s just been a question of how. But that’s all changing with technology."