Can Data Save Education?

Yesterday the White House, Departments of Education and Treasury, and the GSA hosted an education “datapalooza.” The event highlighted how open data and collaboration across sectors can improve educational opportunities in the United States. The event showcased organizations whose mission is to help students apply for college, obtain the necessary skills to thrive in the workforce and are leveraging emerging teaching and learning environments.

The datapalooza was a reminder of the importance of open data, and how data can serve to create a platform for government innovation, especially in the education sector. I always enjoy hearing Tim O’Reilly speak on the concept of using data to create a “platform for government,” and his recent interview with McKinsey echoes many of the open data efforts occurring across government:

So much thinking in government is around, “Well, we’re going to build a program to solve this particular problem.” But the most successful government programs to me seem to be platform kinds of programs. And I’m not talking about, “Oh, well, the government funded the Internet originally.”

I’m talking about things like GPS. The fact is that this is a military program that, through a crucial policy decision, was opened up for civilian use. If this was still just for fighter pilots, we wouldn’t have that Google self-driving car. We wouldn’t have maps on our smartphones. And that’s why I think this idea of a platform and the idea of a market go hand in hand so well. Because when you build a really powerful, effective platform, you do enable a market.

That idea of a creating a market and platform for innovation is exactly what is driving innovation in the education sector. The need for education reform is clear. Last year, the Obama administration released a series of proposals designed to make college more affordable. In a fact sheet released highlighting the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class, the administration shows the necessity to revamp and disrupt the education sector:

  • The average tuition at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades, while incomes for typical families grew by only 16 percent, according to College Board and Census data.
  • Declining state funding has forced students to shoulder a bigger proportion of college costs; tuition has almost doubled as a share of public college revenues over the past 25 years from 25 percent to 47 percent.
  • While a college education remains a worthwhile investment overall, the average borrower now graduates with over $26,000 in debt.
  • Only 58 percent of full-time students who began college in 2004 earned a four-year degree within six years.
  • Loan default rates are rising, and too many young adults are burdened with debt as they seek to start a family, buy a home, launch a business, or save for retirement.

These statistics are indicative of larger and complex challenges facing educators across the country. Although education is a complex field to reform, data can serve as a way to improve the decision making process on reform, and also spark innovative approaches to the way students select colleges, obtain skills and improve the quality and accessibility of education.

As Cecilia Munoz said, “[There is] lots to do, the federal government will be a partner, but need to do it together.” Arne Duncan, Secretary of State also noted, “With your collective hard work, your collective creativity, your collective innovations are coming at a hugely important time. We're fighting to strengthen families, fighting to strengthen communities, fighting to strengthen our country.” He added, “Whatever we can do to help you be successful, we want to do it.” When you analyze the semantics and their choice of words - you can tell that the Department and Administration leaders are drawn to the idea of creating a platform for educational innovation. In a fact sheet released, they also noted some of the goals they are trying to achieve (read full list here):

  1. Exploring the Use of APIs to Improve Access to Education Resources
  2. Opening Targeted FAFSA Completion Data to High Schools and Guidance
  3. Counselors.
  4. Pursuing Data- Driven, Targeted Strategies for Communicating with Student Loan Borrowers
  5. Considering the Integration of Third Party Apps into the Department’s Financial Aid Toolkit
  6. Continuing Engagement Around Higher Education Innovation and Open Data
  7. Calling for Ideas for Experimental Sites
  8. Streamlining Application Paperwork
  9. Seeking New “Pull Mechanisms” to Support Development of New Learning Technologies

To achieve these objectives, the Department of Education has been releasing scores of data sets to empower collaboration and encourage the private sector to build data and applications to assist in improving education outcomes. Below are use cases highlighted at the datapalooza. They are evidence of the power of unlocking data and how the concept of government as a platform can work in practice.

Improved Decision Making for Students

Deciding which college to attend is one the most important decisions a student will make, it’s a decision that will shape a transformative time in their life. Laura Perna, Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, was clear to remind us that there is no silver bullet for education, and that making a decision to attend a university is not easy for students, they must consider ability to pay, based on their income, family earnings and other resources they may have access too.

Thankfully, there are now a handful of tools that are available to students to make better and more informed decisions, powered by federal agencies open data initiatives. One of those tools is College Abacus, which provides clarity to the cost of education for prospective students. College Abacus allows users to compare their projected financial aid packages across schools and to identify schools within their budgets. Abigail Seldin, CEO/co-founder, was clear to note that even elite schools can be affordable, and with their tool, students can make more informed decisions and apply to schools that they once would consider out of reach, allowing them to maximize their chances at success and excelling in their careers. (You learn more here.)

Another example of improving education decisions is the site, “How’s My Offer.” The datapalooza featured Adam Phillabuam, and the founder of How’s My Offer. How’s My Offer website states how it works, “anonymously compares your college award offer letters with others. And, through the power of community your anonymous offer will help other students make better decisions in the future too.” Both of these programs have leverage the power of community and data to help students make improved decisions.

Yet, just knowing your likelihood of admittance and your financial aid package is only part of the equation. Christina Allen, a representative from LinkedIn described the power of university.linkedin.com. Through LinkedIn’s massive network, prospective students can see alumni, current students and able to see possible career paths, networking opportunities and career options. As Christina Allen said, that unlike some other social networks, LinkedIn is where students actually want to be with adults.

Helping to Connect Students to Counselors

E.J. Carrion, co-founder and CEO of Student Success Academy, is working to solve another problem faced by students when applying to college - the limited time they get to spend with counselors and advisers. For high schools with large student populations, it’s unbelievably challenging for a counselor to invest the proper amount of time with students, scheduling meetings and building relationships. That’s where Student Success Academy comes into play. The website states, “SSA's focus is that all teens should be given their own success agent or consultant who provides personalization and accountability. They believed that if this agent is closer in age teens would be more engaged and interested in creating goals, identifying passions, and preparing for college.” This is another tool for students to leverage in the journey to find the perfect college.

These tools have taken the physical world and turned them digital, and in continuation of this trend, Keith Frome, College Summit and King Center, spoke exclusively about College App Map. College App Map helps to support, inform and coach students through college. College App Map website states:

Welcome to the College App Map, where you can find apps to support, inform, and coach you to and through college. The 19 apps you see here were the winners of a national competition called the College Knowledge Challenge (www.collegeknowledgechallenge.org ). The map shows the tasks or “steps” you have to achieve each year in high school and college to stay on the path to success. Next to each step, you’ll find the name of an app that helps you achieve that step. Most apps are free and can be accessed by clicking the app button next to the step or by going to the APP LIST page and clicking the app logo or website link. Just find your year in school on the map, choose a step you need to complete, find the apps that will help, click, and go!

Annually, the College Summit serves 50,000 students in 9th through 12th grade, many of which will be the first in their family to attend college. Although Keith Frome provided great insights on the programs, Fahim Muhammad, a student at the Academy Charter, stole the show at the datapalooza. Fahim provided insights on how he has been using college appmap to make better decisions and improve his knowledge about what school to attend.

Improving the Quality and Accessibility of Education

Organizations are using data not only to help students improve their decision making, but also to improve the quality of education they receive within the classroom. “Learning science doesn't say spend more, it means spend smart,” said Bror Saxberg, Chief Learning Officer, Kaplan. Although federal agencies can create platforms for innovation through their data, reform will only be successful by investing accordingly, and knowing what works and what doesn’t.

In order to understand success and share best practices, Robert Lue and Dustin Tingley are working to create a community through ABLConnect. “ABLConnect is a teaching resource database. We compile active learning strategies from innovative teachers, so that you can use them in your classes.” They are building a community for teachers to share resources, measure effectiveness and allow teachers to replicate and build on shared successes.

The work continues on creating collaborative platforms, and increasing accessibility to resources. In a digital world, we’ve seen countless times that education is not confined to just the classroom. We’re learning in a complex ecosystem, and trends are pointing heavily towards merging the physical learning space, with the digital. EdX is one organization working to merge the physical with digital, as they offer interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Just like on a campus, where students have an expansive course catalogued suited to fit their needs, EdX offers courses on biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more.

The move to digital, which EdX is working on, is a trend we’ve seen from many public and private universities. Kaitlin Gambrill, also discussed the OpenSUNY program, which is a system-wide effort designed to maximize online-enabled learning opportunities for all SUNY students’ current and future. The datapalooza had representatives from the company, 2U, which partners with higher education university to bring the classroom to the web.

With the classroom moving digital, so have our books and resources. Ariel Diaz, Boundless founder and CEO, is on a mission to reduce the cost of purchasing textbooks, and making them more accessible and affordable for students. Boundless curates the best open educational content in over 20 subjects, and then delivers content to students. This is allowing students more accessibility to reports and students.

Yet, another problem that online students face is showing that their skillsets are comparable to those learned on a campus. Nicholas Thorne has started a company to help students show their value digitally. His company, Basno, is a place to create and collect digital badges. Basno helps people create a digital brand to show their skill sets. Dennis DiLorenzo, Dean New York University, noted that alums and students love the digital branding they can use with Basno, helping them to elevate their careers, and connect current student with alumni.

The datapalooza also feature Max Song, founder of ThisIsGrit. ThisIsGRIT is a video campaign showcasing stories of people who overcome adversity to obtain high education degrees. Reminding us of the importance of reform for education. I’d encourage you all to check a few videos, they are truly inspiring.

Many of the initiatives highlighted are fueled by public sector data, showing the power of opening up government for passionate citizens to build tools and resources to improve the viability of our communities. We’re just beginning to understand and scrape the surface of what is possible by unlocking our data, and I am excited to see what the future holds.

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