The way we’re learning has changed. Gone are the days of rote memorization. What purpose, after all, does it serve to tie up our bandwidth with factoids like the exact year something happened, when our brains would be better engaged in understanding the complexities of decision-making and the context in which those decisions were made?
Yes, we’re talking about the Internet and its limitless information. The trick is to find a way to hook us all into it and it to all of us without tearing away the walls of privacy. Such is the dilemma of big data. And when it comes to educational technology, also known as instructional tech or EdTech, the dilemma is how to use all that information, all those ways of learning, all those methods of teaching to give our children the best recipes for success in the new world without putting them smack in the middle of “1984” or an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Berj Akian, founder and CEO of ClassLink, an EdTech software firm in Clifton, thinks we’ll figure it out, and in his lifetime. By the time this year’s newborns are old enough to be president, the 40-year-old former accountant believes, privacy and vast access will make their peace with each other. We just have a lot of steps to go through first.
Akian will be one of several panelists to talk about big data and its effects on society at the New Jersey Technology Council’s Data Summit & Expo on Tuesday, December 9, at JuiceTank in Somerset. The panelists will discuss how big data is changing and will continue to affect everything from the cloud to customer service to the applications of educational, financial, and supply chain technology.
Joining Akian will be Michael Higgins of Internap; Chris Connor of Comcast Business; Wayne Letterman of Level 3; Chris Macstoker of And Ed; Nana Banerjee and Perry Rotella of Verisk Analytics; Stephanie Giammarco of BDO Consulting; Adam Herbert of Nimble Storage; and Mike Onghai of Looksmart. Cost: $150. Visit www.njtc.org/data-summit.
Akian is the first-generation son of Armenian immigrant parents who met in the U.S. and had four children. His father worked in a factory that produced cabinets for IBM mainframe computers and his mother was a dental hygienist and bookkeeper. Akian grew up in North Jersey and got his accounting bachelor’s from Baruch. As a CPA, he worked with some of the larger firms until he was `bitten by the bug” of entrepreneurialism in the mid-1990s. He worked as a venture capitalist, getting an inside eye on how businesses were born and nurtured until 1998, when he founded ClassLink on the idea of making sure all school children have equal access to knowledge and learning through technology.
What he’s learned as education and technology have joined hands over the past decade and a half is that there is no one way to teach or learn. And it’s not even as simple as A works but B,C, and D don’t. Nor even that A works for me while B C, and D work for a few other people. Sometimes, Akian says, A will work for a while, and then you’ll have to call in C from the bullpen.
Context. To understand the potential implications of all this, you need to understand what EdTech really is and the context in which it is utilized. At its most grandiose, Akian says, EdTech is “the coming together of technologies to explore learning outcomes.” In other words, its how technology helps students learn and develop their curricula. EdTech at the college level, for instance, is increasingly used to guide students through their courses of study akin to how college counselors do.
Applying this directly to education, however, demands an eye on exactly what outcomes we’re hoping to achieve. Schools teach students knowledge they’ll need to join the workforce as it exists. Until the digital revolution, the workforce was heavy with trade jobs or those careers that required memorization and application of known facts.
“Today is a very different workforce,” Akian says. We’re now in a world in which companies like Google are the high bar, and not because they need people who can put data sets into a digital folder, but because they need people who can answer “Name five things you can do with a pencil other than write” in a way that shows how they think. The workforce of today, and certainly tomorrow, will rely on the ability to problem-solve situationally and in ways no one else has thought of. Says Akian: “We cannot prepare students for a workforce that is not reality.”
Pathways to learning. Once you understand that teaching and learning will be reliant on the context of the workforce waiting for students after graduation, the next step is to acknowledge that there are different pathways to learning.
“Students today are able to take in information through a lot of technological experiences,” Akian says. Between videos, games, and social media, kids take in and process reams of information that once required years of reading. But are they retaining this information?
Probably not. But remember, that’s a good thing in a lot of ways. Students brains are not weighed down with information that can be accessed from the phones in their pockets. What technology is allowing is exactly that broad thinking that Google wants. Students are learning how to apply facts and knowledge in terms of processes. There is no competitive advantage, Akian says, in an encyclopedic memory when instant access to data is ubiquitous.
Big data meets education. “Big data” is merely a neologism for “computational analysis,” which has been around for decades. It’s just that now we’re in a world in which we can actually process the expanding universe of accumulated data and deliver it to people when they need it.
What big data is trying to achieve when it comes to personal information is, in short, everything. The dilemma lies in the fact that most people don’t want everything about their lives, from their political views to their over-the-counter purchases, stored in a vast virtual basin into which unscrupulous — or, hell, even scrupulous — others can reach any time they want.
Where it comes into play for students is at the intersection of supplying the big data basin with information about a child — how well he does on what types of tests, what his aptitudes are, what his behavioral problems may be — without violating that child’s privacy, Akian says. All that data about a child would be what computer analysis would identify as areas to strengthen and give the child the best methods of learning for his own mind and abilities.
At the same time, we do not want to create an “Alphaville”-style world in which one main computer knows everything about us and creates permanent stigmas based on issues in childhood. Remember your permanent record, and how teachers loved to deliver ominous warnings about the fact that it would follow you around for life? That’s not too far-fetched when it comes to big data permanence. In fact, we are already seeing it — the Internet is, after all, forever. Just ask actors who did embarrassing scenes in movies 40 years ago only to see them resurface as viral memes on the web.
The other half of this danger is the idea that a computer could dictate our lives to us as if handing us a set of step-by-step instructions, Akian says. He’s not worried that we will shut off innovation by finding some sort of technological peak (Akian calls that “an amazingly low risk,” because people are always going to innovate and what works for now will always change later). The greater risk, he says, will be that computers will tell us thinks like “Berj should learn this way, but that might turn off other things that I might be exposed to” he says.
Imagine, he says, if big data told a young Beethoven or Mozart to be a scientist instead of a composer. “It’s not the pace of innovation. I’m worried that the computer might spit out a recipe for my life,” he says.