Leaders Get Proactive As Big Data Gets Bigger

I recently attended Tech and Learning Magazine’s SchoolCIO Summit, prior to the ISTE Conference in Atlanta. The focus of this particular summit was on Leadership in the Age of Big Data. From the presentations at the Summit, I learned that the issue of data continues to explode. This explosion raises the importance of anticipating trends in data use. Additionally, schools need to develop policies to both protect critical data and to help students and staff use it creatively.

At the Summit, Intel spoke on the exponential growth in the amount of data that is available to be analyzed and used. Originally, use of data analysis was for information related to core business intelligence. In education, this would apply in test scores, for example. Personal data from collaboration sites like social media, increases the amount of data by 3-4 powers of ten, which is 1,000 to 100,000 times more data than the business intelligence information. Another big trend affecting data is the Internet of Things. It will increase the amount of data by 6-7 powers of ten, which is 100 million to a billion times more data. Local data may grow from terabytes to petabytes and exabytes, while worldwide data may grow from exabytes to zettabytes and yottabytes. A yottabyte is one septillion bytes. That is quite a bit of data!

The ‘Internet of Things’ involves adding simple computing and communication power to the many items that collect data all around us. These items include equipment and other items that did not used to have any computing power.  In a personal example, I received a notice the other day that my electrical meter would be replaced at home. The new meter will be a ‘smart meter’, which will transmit data directly back to the utility company for analysis.  These new meters give the utility company ongoing access to power usage data. With this in place, they will now collect and transmit readings much more frequently than was done with manual readings.  

This is the primary advantage of the Internet of Things; to allow more real-time data, which leads to quicker, more accurate decision-making. There is also a myriad of future building maintenance usages for data: Unit vents reporting when to replace filters, light fixtures reporting the time to change bulbs, and refrigerators reporting when food items need replacement. We are seeing the initial effect of this with network printers and copiers that notify us that they are low on toner. One day, student attendance may be automatically taken by the student IDs communicating directly with the door as they pass through. Additionally, the outside doors could notify administration if someone without a student ID passes through.

If this big and bigger data sounds a little like ‘Big Brother’, it can be. That is where we come in. School tech directors need to start anticipating this potential explosion of data and start establishing policies on what data can be used and how it can be used. This is most important in data relating to student information. We need to anticipate which organizations will be storing or analyzing our data and ensure that they are treating it with the proper amount of privacy. One CIO Summit participant suggested that tech directors should have a firm handle on which software vendors and organizations have access to private student data and what their data privacy and sharing policies.

The biggest potential for security issues occurs when humans give the wrong people access to protected data. We need to teach staff more about how to share files. We need to teach students the same thing. In this social-media-friendly world, the tendency is to share everything. That is not always the best path. We know that our students need education about this potential risk. Staff members also need to become more savvy sharers of data. While we may not need to actually conduct the training, we need to see that it happens.

On the brighter, more creative side, this big data gives us many more valuable options for monitoring and directing student progress. We can see the possibilities of giving students access to analytical data on their own performance at a level previously reserved only for assessment experts. Used creatively, students equipped with this level of analysis could effectively direct their own curriculum and add interventions as needed for their own progress. We need to teach skills and give tools to teachers and students so that they can quickly analyze data and use it to improve their performance.

Like any technology, this data trend is amoral. We can harness it to help our teachers and students improve the work of instruction, or it can be used to compromise their sensitive information. Our job is to anticipate the proper uses of data and to direct and educate so that it is used properly. We need to do it now. Big and bigger data is coming.  

Craig Williams is the director of information services for Illinois School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois. He and his team are overhauling the district’s infrastructure and seeding technology into classrooms, to ensure the all of the district’s culturally-diverse students have the opportunity to expand their learning and achievement. His previous work with schools, first as a building architect, then as a technology design consultant, provides him with a broad perspective on planning for improved student learning. Williams currently serves on the Board with the Illinois CoSN chapter - Education Technology Council of Illinois. 

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