Big Data Transforms Online Education

Image by Sean MacEntee

Online education’s recent success and scale creates unique big data. Together it changes online education and enables personalized, adaptive learning. This development challenges traditional education services.

An educational paradigm shift
The End of Higher Education as We Know It, explains how online education will transform higher education. The fact that (prestigious) universities scramble to be part of this paradigm shift shows how serious the development is. Today, we can take an increasing array of courses online, often of the highest quality, higher than many are privileged to enjoy in brick-and-mortar universities. The change started off as recordings of courses given in a traditional setting. Increasingly, we see online tailored courses by experts in their field like Andrew Ng from Stanford with hisĀ Machine Learning course on Coursera.

Opportunities of online education
This change poses a tremendous opportunity to third-world countries where students are often unable to afford or access (higher) education programs due to barriers of income or incompatible education systems. Even in the first world this is not an unheard of problem, with socioeconomic hurdles excluding students from lower income families. For professionals like myself who enjoyed a complete education, this is still an exciting prospect. We are engaged in lifelong learning and have to be more flexible than previous generations. Overall, online education seems inevitable and a great opportunity for many.

Big data
I am convinced that big data will become an integral part of this development. The data contains valuable information, e.g. how long a student takes for parts of the course, how long she is logged in, how difficult a test is based on the results of all students and the individual effort in leading up to the test, how likely they are to succeed in a field, how much additional support they may need, and much more.

Subsequently, one of the ideas for financing online education is to pick the best students from the courses and match them with fitting jobs. This kind of recommendation is not only beneficial for companies and students but also a profitable business. We all know of the army of recruiters that scavenge LinkedIn 24/7. LinkedIn itself does a similar business with its job recommendations. Online universities, equipped with big data about their students, will jumpstart careers and make money with better recommendations than from any traditional consultant and even LinkedIn (at least early in the career).

Adaptive education
The ensuing race for better data, insight, and predictions will also lead to a great pool of data that will be a goldmine for education researchers. Suddenly, they will have large numbers of students and all their relevant interactions to explore. I would not be surprised to see some rapid advances in the field of education. We should be able to quickly identify effective course styles and materials. Similarly, education will become personalized in the sense that students will have feedback immediately and course material and speed adjusted to their ability and lifestyle. They will probably be called something like adaptive courses or degrees where you learn as much as you want, as fast as you want. Once you collect the required credits, you graduate. Whether you do it full-time, part-time, or in the evening is irrelevant, and students will not be hampered or dragged along by a rigid course structure.

The transparency of data will have unpleasant side effects for some. Poor teaching will not go unnoticed, as much as taking a ride with your team in a team-project or plagiarizing work will be more likely to be discovered. On the upside, good teaching and outstanding students should benefit greatly. As an optimist, I would like to believe that this will lead to a meritocracy where it does not matter who or where you are but what you achieve through your given talents and the level of work you dedicate. In practice, I expect money skewing the system, as usual. Affluent students may be able to buy a special teaching service to give an extra boost, or make up for lack of talent or dedication.

Overall, though, I expect a more just, affordable, and better education where talented, hardworking students have more options and opportunities.

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