So much excitement today at Do Good Data 2015 in Chicago, a conference for proud data nerds.  It’s a conference that’s grown in attendance by five times in one short year and is full of bold people that are hungry for improvement.  Who’s here? Six hundred attendees from all over the nation, largely representing the growing field of data science within the social sector.  Are there some quant types?  To be sure.  There’s talk about R language and algorithms, proximal indicators and decision tree tools.  Are there academic types?  Yes. Today boasted keynotes from esteemed scholar/entrepreneurs and researchers/writers/MacArthur geniuses.  How about the private sector?  Well yes.  They’re here and the early work with big data in economics, marketing, and finance informs work happening now with nonprofits and the social sector in general.  But educators?  Nary a handful.

Big data and predictive analytics are largely discussed at the academic level in the education sector but the hype’s worth some attention.  Imagine if we could not only predict which students would benefit most from specific educational settings and/or approaches, but also if we could prescribe personalized experiences and pathways for them that were informed by their unique learning history, by empirical research, and by their specific academic objectives?  Predictive analytics are just that: predictive.  They’re not perfect, but they raise the odds that our education decisions, informed by much richer data than we tend to harness right now, can be more closely targeted to individual student needs, will encourage greater learning, and may introduce both instructional and financial efficiencies.  Rich, interconnected data, driven by targeted inquiry, can and must, in the words of Andrew Means (head honcho for the conference and major data nerd) link outcomes to interventions to bring about better services for students.  And, at the risk of being repetitive, innovation depends on sound feedback loops.

There are loads of benefits to explore and many related issues to tease apart, including data privacy, educator capacity, and the loud and proud pushback on data use by various stakeholders including teacher unions and parents.  In the meantime, though, hug a data nerd.  Even if they’re from another sector.  Education needs them.  And if you can’t find one, perhaps you should become one.

– Allison Crean Davis


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