15th July 2013
Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown that the US and UK governments have been scooping up enormous quantities of data on how we use the internet, and sifting it for information. This seems a good time to reflect on how we in education are collecting and using data on our students, and to consider whether the direction in which we are headed is the right one.
Something that is on the horizon – very possibly within the life of this parliament – is the arrival of the Universal Learner ID Number. This number will track every student’s progress from pre-school to secondary school and to Higher Education and employment. The last government didn’t manage to push through National Identity Cards, but the Universal Learner ID Number, perhaps because it seems bureaucratic rather than personal, is on its way. The scary thing is that it could amount to much the same thing: an impressive level of government tracking on an individual and macro basis.
The reason this ID number will be so powerful is that the government will be able to use it to cross-reference a host of other data sources – where people live, their NHS profiles, their tax records, where they went to university, and how well they did at university.
For example, at a macro level, analysis of the ID numbers will allow us to see what your most likely eventual salary will be if you grow up in a particular postcode and arrive at a particular secondary school with a level 4 in English, versus a level 5. They’ll be able to tell how much you’re likely to cost the taxpayer through your use of the NHS, and in fact, if, over your lifetime, you will make an overall net contribution to the UK’s economy or not.
Undoubtedly this data will be useful for the government to plan how it invests its money to make its services more effective. But experience tells us that once data exists, it can never be kept secret: we have to think about whether we are happy for everyone to have access to such rich data on us all.
On a smaller, but perhaps scarier scale, over the last few years in UK schools we have been witnessing the inexorable rise of the use of data. When I first started teaching in 2005, the only data tracking was a spreadsheet which listed the kids who were ‘bankers’ for Cs in English and Maths GCSE, those who were likely to get Cs in English but not Maths, and Maths but not English, and those who weren’t likely to get either. This wasn’t the height of sophistication. Now, however, we are not far away from the following scenario:
- A student swears in class
- The classroom teacher immediately logs this misbehaviour on the student’s profile via a smartphone
- The student loses their temper and storms out
- The head of year, walking down the corridor, sees an alert on their phone and picks up the student
- The student’s parents and form tutor are emailed a report of the incident
- The form tutor sends a ‘detention invite’ to the student, and a ‘meeting invite’ to the parents
All of these actions take place within 10 minutes and are permanently logged against the student’s profile
Neat, huh? I admit that at first glance this does seem an improvement on my experience of behaviour logging – writing reports on carbon copy paper where I kept one copy, one copy went to the form tutor, one to the head of year, and at the end of the process, nothing was followed up and all records were invariably lost.
But there are two problems with the scenario described above. The first is – can you imagine actually living in a world where everything you do is tracked by ‘The Man’, and can be summoned to bite you at the click of a button? George Orwell couldn’t have foreseen this level of scrutiny when he wrote 1984, but it would have fitted into his book neatly. For students, schools are effectively their state – but we have little concept of schools needing to promote an atmosphere in keeping with human rights.
The second problem with the scenario might at first sight seem overly subtle – but I think it’s actually profound – tracking behavior at this detailed level turns the school environment from one governed by a social contract (ie, students behave because there are rules, and it’s right to behave properly), to one governed by a functional contract (ie, students behave because if they don’t, their behavior will be minutely recorded on their profiles, and there is no escape). I don’t think this is a good move. Schools which have stopped functioning on a social contract will be horrible places to study and teach.
Maybe I sound like a luddite – complaining about threshing machines at the advent of the agrarian revolution because I’m scared of a more efficient future. But actually I think that the arrival of data in education presents us with extraordinary positive opportunities. It’s just important that we think about how we use data best.
One of the most exciting possibilities with data in education is to use it not only to track students, but rather, ‘flipping’ the issue – to allow students’ access to data so that they are the ones in control of the information.
My own effort to use data sensibly is Unifrog – an online tool which helps students choose the best universities for them, while allowing teachers to track students’ progress. My favourite thing about Unifrog is that its raison d’etre is not to track data on the students who use the system, rather, it presents kids with the data – in our case data on the 50,000 undergraduate courses in the UK – and allows them to digest it and use it to their benefit.
The way it works is, students put in some information about themselves such as which country they live in, how well they are likely to do by the time they leave school, and what they want to study, then the tool shows them every course in the UK which matches the subject or subjects they say they are interested in. The big thing here is that all of the courses are put into one of three categories: Aspirational, Solid and Safe – defined by comparing students’ likely performance with the courses’ entry requirements, and then the students can see how all the courses rank against each other on factors such as the fees, the average starting salary of graduates who have done the course, the distance of the university from their home, and the average number of tutorials and lectures per term. Unifrog is like a ‘Compare The Market’ for universities, where the kids are the ones in the driving seats.
So what can Edward Snowden teach us about education? He can make us concerned about the future – rich data on our students’ journeys through the education system and beyond, which will almost certainly fall into the public domain. And we can also stop to think about what kind of schools we want – ones where data is used to bash students over their heads, or ones where we ‘flip’ the data direction – to let students use data to open their eyes to the possibilities ahead of them.