Last updated: 03.06.14

The role of big data in learning

The ability to analyse ever larger volumes of data - and receive a more accurate picture of small details as a result - has been heralded over the last few years as having a transformative effect on enterprise as we know it. And now, it seems, 'big data' is promising to revolutionise education as well.

The idea behind big data is a relatively straightforward one. Basically, cloud-enabled infrastructure, improved processing power and ubiquitous internet access are conspiring to enable those with the knowhow to make computations on previously once unimaginable amounts of metadata.

Previously, we might have based our insights on a small sample of users or even a survey of respondents. However, both of these methods are potentially flawed and such simplified models can unintentionally paint a drastically different picture to the reality they are attempting to mimic.

Big data, on the other hand, says that if you have a million users or ten million, you can include every single one in your dataset so that the conclusions you come to are as reflective as possible of what users are actually doing.

In the field of education, technology expert Diana Laurillard - author of 'Teaching as a design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology' - suggests that big data can be used to analyse how online educational resources are actually used by individuals; providing teachers, lecturers and trainers with valuable insights into how they can improve their courses.

However, as with any such insight, she explains that the data is only as useful as the questions being asked, particularly as the data is primarily being collected as a by-product of "interactions with the system", rather than in response to a direct line of questioning. 

With this in mind, educators need to be mindful about what they can learn from the data, but examples of the sorts of insights that are available include when and from where individuals are accessing online resources, which activities they spend the most time completing, which they tend to ignore, and the like.