Sifting Thoughts

Big Data and EdTech: a symbiotic relationship?

GUEST COLUMN | by Kreigh Knerr

Sifting ThoughtsAs someone who spends the bulk of his time analyzing standardized tests and standardized test performance, you might imagine that Big Data promises to be my biggest friend. I’ve found, though, that there is a tipping point where the data start to overwhelm any intelligible thought and, instead of providing instructive information, merely provide more information. As a relatively recent voyager in the educational technology world, I’ve had the luxury of working with hundreds of students, parents, and teachers while the EdTech world grew around me, with a large portion of my work spent analyzing data and describing the narrative it (or they) tell to those audiences. Now that I find myself a part of the EdTech world, I’ve noticed a recent trend in articles and in EdTech products: many, if not most, highlight the integration and the promise of Big Data. Which leads to a question about that integration, do Big Data and EdTech have a necessarily symbiotic relationship?

This question has importance for EdTech developers because it both determines how EdTech products get developed and what EdTech products get developed. Further, and this is the item of greatest import, if Big Data and EdTech are necessarily symbiotic in relationship, then the success of an EdTech venture designed with this assumption will be largely concluded successful if Big Data is still considered valuable. Or, to put it another way, EdTech’s reputation and worth become tied to Big Data’s.

While Big Data’s precise definition is still in flux, we can comfortably assume that it involves data that has a torrent of “volume, velocity and variety.” If that alliterative jargon seems like it needs explication, you’d be right. There are a number of longer definitions available from a quick Google search—I found 52.7 million responses in .33 seconds—but Big Data can be thought of as data amassed on a larger scale from a greater number of sources, often with real time or immediate response, than we’re accustomed to having access. Or, we can think of it as being more than 52 million responses in less than half of a second.

Yes, Data is Important… But with Deliberation as Guide

Lest people accuse me of not caring about data, most of my present work is dependent upon it, and I entered this field knowing that. I like data and rely upon it for many aspects of my work. I have never found, though, that data replaced what my eyes were telling me (which, admittedly, could be considered a differently conceived repository of data), nor has data ever been presented to me without requiring some interpretive narrative to comprehend it. As I like to tell my ACT Science students, “Data without context is meaningless.” And, as nineteenth century apothecary John Haslam noted, “Connection, to a great degree, is a contrivance of our own minds.” These cautions ought to remain at the forefront of our consideration of data of any size.

Whether determined by the programmers’ minds as they devise ways of sifting and presenting Big Data, or determined by the observers’ minds as they advise others on the meaning of that presented Big Data, the question persists about whether all that data is really as connected or meaningful as we hope, without even addressing the question of what all this cataloguing means for us morally. If we place too much emphasis on this (not really) new tool, we run the same risk of error as some early 20th century philosophers with their high hopes for formal logic’s promise.

Big Data and EdTech Design

Aside from the general caveats given above, the more immediate concern about the potential conflation of EdTech and Big Data (I don’t think we’ve reached that point by any stretch) is that future educational technology tools would be limited to a design that can incorporate measurements of student performance. Or, EdTech tools that receive funding or press would exclusively be those that incorporate Big Data somehow, even if just in name but not useful function. These are not likely outcomes since videos for TED Talks and Khan Academy exist under the EdTech umbrella, broadly speaking. They are, however, possible scenarios and dispositions that those of us creating, cultivating, or utilizing EdTech tools in the classroom should be careful of fostering.

To return to the idea of EdTech and Big Data’s intertwining in public and educational discourse, we want most of all to focus on the promise of EdTech specifically rather than on the promise of EdTech and Big Data jointly. This is not to ignore the vast potential that Big Data may possess, but rather to highlight that EdTech, generally speaking, is not merely another tool for learning, but an integral element in the contemporary classroom. If we conflate the two in our conversation, we run the risk of miscategorizing Big Data’s function and allowing EdTech’s growing promise to overshadow the concerns about Big Data that even senior statisticians at Google hold. EdTech and Big Data complement each other: they are not so integrally conceived that they demand each other’s existence.

EdTech, The Dream Weaver

I’ll conclude with the striking words of Margaret Sherwood (1864-1955) whose 1916 essay “The Other Side” has served as a helpful reminder to me not to place disproportional emphasis on the daily data—big and small—with which I am presented, and to consider how to include space for dreaming with the EdTech products that I employ with my students or help design for others’ educational enrichment:

Take away from youth the power of seeing visions, of dreaming dreams, and you take away the future. It would behoove us to remember, perhaps, that the eras of great deeds have not been eras of analysis, but eras when the creative imagination was at work. Yet our modern mental habit is overwhelmingly a habit of analysis, for which science, in teaching us to pick the world to bits, is partly, though not wholly, responsible.

Kreigh Knerr is a former teacher who now directs Knerr Learning Center in Milwaukee. Kreigh created QuotEd Reading Comprehension, an app based on literacy and critical thinking scholarship, to assist classroom teachers as they negotiate the CCSS and to guide individual students toward enhanced reading comprehension. He consults with both secondary school faculties and individuals worldwide on standardized testing performance. Visit Kreigh at


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