The future of education and data: 3 key questions

Dr Chris Yapp, NACE patron

When thinking about the future of any part of the economy and society, most futurists will start by looking back. The reason for this is quite simple. First, it is important to understand the journey to where we are now, or where we think we are. Second, it helps us focus on past predictions about what would happen that did not and why. Finally, it helps understand if the sector being considered has taken full advantage of long-term trends and that trend has run out of steam, or still has a while to go.

Much hype in the tech sector over the last decade and more has been around “big data”. Since the exam chaos of the summer, there has been an increased interest in alternatives to the current systems of assessment and certifications. One topic, learning analytics, has been growing in interest in my email and social media conversations since lockdown. This is the “big data” in education movement in one of its manifestations.

Here, I want to look at the wider issues of data in education by contrasting my school years (the 1960s) with today.

Try this as a little exercise. Think of a year between 1990 and 2015. Now choose a F1 Grand Prix race. Then Google “winner 1997 Monaco Grand Prix” with your chosen years and race substituted for mine. In less than a minute from start to finish you can get the answer.

Now back in the 1960s, maybe some people would have had sports annuals and could look the answer up. Maybe you had a racing nut among your friends who would know the answer. If not, a trip to a local library which may or may not have had a book with the answer, during opening hours. Most people would have given up.

Note: it does not matter whether you are interested or expert in F1; the answer is available on demand.

So, the first question I want to pose to educationalists is this:

“How has what is taught, how it is taught and assessed changed to take advantage of the widespread availability of data on demand?”

This growth of availability also brings new challenges.

First, different cultures have different answers to the same questions. Try asking Siri who invented television. The Americans claim Philo Farnsworth. As you enter Helensburgh in the West Coast of Scotland the welcome sign says, “Birthplace of John Logie Baird, inventor of television”. Who is correct?

Add to this various conspiracy theories around COVID-19, vaccines, 5G and many more issues: the need for information literacy among teachers and pupils is clear if we are to benefit and minimise risk over this vast treasure trove of data.

So, my second question is this:

“Where in the school curriculum is this challenge addressed to ensure our youngsters have the skills to navigate the data landscape?”

If we try a more complex question, the possibilities become apparent. Jane Austen’s garden at Chawton House was laid out last time I visited using only plants that were known in England while she was alive. “What flowers were introduced into the UK during the life of Jane Austen?” would have been a PhD thesis back in the 1960s.

In an area of your own interest, think of a similar question when you have 30 minutes spare and research it online. Having worked in the industry for decades, it is amazing still to be astonished at what is available now – with all the necessary caveats about quality.

It is in this last area – quality of information – that I think support for the most able learners has the most potential. Rather than focus on teaching them against a fixed syllabus, there is potential for giving them learning challenges and developing their research capabilities and skills to discriminate among the contested claims in the information they can discover for themselves.

If interested, spend half an hour looking at the history of flight online. It is an extraordinary tale from ancient times, not just a story of the 20th century and the Wright brothers.

Online learning is not the same as online teaching.

Over 20 years ago I remember a young lad, who was a troubled individual, researching and building a history of boxing project of his own volition. His pride in demonstrating what he had discovered for himself and his desire to articulate and share his story changed his teacher’s perceptions of him.

So, here is my third question – and challenge – for you, dear reader:

“How can schools develop in the 2020s so that all our children have the skills to use the avalanche of data available on demand to stretch their imagination, creativity and learning?”

Under this there are many questions that need to be addressed, around curriculum, assessment, resources, inclusion, and importantly professional development.

In my talk at NACE’s upcoming Leadership Conference I will be developing this and other themes to encourage us all to imagine what schooling needs to be post-pandemic to tackle the challenges we all face as parents, teachers and citizens.

Join the conversation… Dr Chris Yapp will lead a keynote session on 19 November 2020 as part of the NACE Leadership Conference, exploring how schools can optimise the use of digital technologies to extend, enrich and develop independent pursuit of learning. View the full conference programme.

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