Online Blogucation

Whom will the data serve? Thoughts on Usefulness and Portals for Education

As noted in the article Salman Khan: The New Andrew Carnegie? -

...knowledge no longer needs to be bound into the paper and cloth of a book but can float free on the wireless waves of the Internet. There’s a lot of junk bobbing in those waves as well — information that is outdated, inaccurate, or flat-out false — so the emergence of online educational materials that are both free of charge and carefully vetted is a momentous development. This phenomenon is all the more significant given the increasing scrutiny directed at for-profit online universities, which have been criticized for burdening students with debt even as they dispense education of questionable usefulness. Websites offering high-quality instruction for free are the Carnegie libraries of the 21st century: portals of opportunity for curious and motivated learners, no matter what their material circumstances (Paul, 2011, para. 6).

I pursue the goal of excelling as an engineer or architect of learning and to be otherwise associated with the proliferation of "portals of opportunity for curious and motivated learners, no matter what their material circumstances" (Paul, 2011, para. 6). In some sense, I am these things already as an Academic Trainer and Consultant with Pearson eCollege. If I had a personal mission statement, it would be worded similarly and my destiny would be to serve in an industry associated with or embedded within the systems of education.

Yet, that’s not the point of this post!

I found it interesting the Paul (2011) article quoted above suggests the phenomenon of high quality online vetted materials " all the more significant given the increasing scrutiny directed at for-profit online universities, which have been criticized for burdening students with debt even as they dispense education of questionable usefulness."

Could not many of us argue that public colleges and universities also "dispense education" of "questionable usefulness"? Actually, many might also debate whether education is dispensed or received or shared or…

Wait, that’s not the point of this post either!

So, what is the point you ask?

The point is to consider critically the reality that all colleges and universities - regardless of profit motive or mission statement - are justifiably susceptible to this questioning of usefulness. Knowledge and skills needed for professions and trades evolve quickly in part due to the globalization of knowledge and virtual removal of barriers to access to information through the internet for a large portion of the world’s population, but certainly not all of that population! Let's question some things...

Could we argue that a nursing or teaching degree in the United States from 1990 is as useful today in the same locale as one from 2010? Does locale matter? How does that impact usefulness?

Does on the job real-world apprenticeship style workflow-learning add value to the formal education received? If yes, how is that measured?

Does a graduate's lack of continued professional or personal development post-graduation to become or remain productive in the workforce as laborer or entrepreneur necessarily reflect negatively on the value of educational portals provided by a college or university?

Yes, that’s the point.

While there is much that can be unpackaged from the messages of the selected quote opening this post, the point of this post is to ask you to think critically about what we are measuring when we refer to educational usefulness, how we are measuring it and defining the variables associated with the measures, and ultimately why we are measuring it – whom will the data serve?

Lisa Marie Johnson, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege


Paul, A.M. (2011, November 16). Salman Khan: The new Andrew Carnegie? The emergence of free, high-quality online courses could change learning forever. Retrieved from Times Online MagazineIdeas section (link opens new page):



Do you remember the haunting words sung by Frank Sinatra - "When I was was a very good year..."? As eCollege turned 13, which incidently is 118 in Internet years, a LOT happened. But more happened to set up 2010 than many people may know. Let's look back for a moment as we look ahead.

Do you know the saying, "Measure twice, cut once?" That is exactly what Pearson is getting ready to do with LearningStudio OE (formerly eCollege). For the past year, we've spent tens of thousands of dollars, hired dozens of new employees, and worked overtime to move the current systems into tighter integration so as to be able to measure more than was ever possible before. Measurement of (and subsequently) performance on outcomes has already proven to make online education stronger in some situations than face to face ( But moving forward, and as technology becomes increasingly seamless with life, the measurement that online education brings to the table will change teaching and learning.

For example, we've always had the ability to correlate time on task or clicks in the system to grades, completion rates, retention, etc. In 2009 we helped a number of schools identify hierarchies of outcomes that could be tagged and reported on at any level. Every day we give statistical measures of outcomes, activity, grades, portfolios, etc., to schools so they can better understand their students. Does time in threaded discussions lead to higher completion rates? We know the answer. Does the amount of time a student has to wait for an assignment to be graded lead to program retention? We know that too.

But in the next decade...heck, in the next couple of years, all of the measuring will become much more significant. A much more holistic view of students will be available based on more than formative & summative feedback. It will be based on more than activity or grade data. The LMS is almost to a place where we can both report on and predict behaviors as they lead to learning. This individual learning path that students will be able to take will come with complete measurement by the faculty and the institution.

I'm talking about measuring students on a lot more than tests and project feedback. We're talking about measuring the intensity by which a student acts - the number of clicks, the types of interactions with peers, the amount of time spent with a teacher, the number of hints needed to succeed, etc. We're talking about the measurement of far more than raw scores on tests. We're talking about understanding the p value for a question, the median scores for the class, the confidence by which students answered a question - all much more than the answer itself.

All of this measuring will give teachers and/or schools the ability to set students along a path that pushes them into higher levels of learning, regardless of how much time or how much interaction takes place between the student and the system. We'll measure when learning happens, how learning happens, and we'll give individuals the tools to reshape their learning priorities so as to make it more meaningful.

That is the future of the LMS. That is the decade before us.

Will Apple release a tablet in 2010 that will revolutionize that market? Maybe. Will the iPhone 4G come out in conjunction with Verizon, thereby making it even more prolific in all circles, including education? Probably. And a dozen other cool technologies will change the landscape of how we interact and communicate. But what matters to me as I advise Pearson about education and technology isn't each cool new toy. It's not the fun new widget that Sony or Microsoft or Google brings to the party. (Have you seen Google Wave yet?...)

No, what matters is the big picture. We are heading to a place where technology is simply an extension of ourselves. A place where homework isn't done at home and school work isn't done at school (at least as we know it). Christensen predicted 50% of all K-12 happening online by the end of our new decade. I agree. And if that's the case for K-12, imagine higher ed. We're coming to a place where technology, school, work, life, and everything else just merge together. It's the ultimate mash-up. It's teaching, learning, and living. It' will be what we just call "life". Not virtual life - just life.

So, if you are looking for what's coming in 2010, it's the set up for all the rest of the next decade. It's going to be amazing I think. I hope you think so too.

So here is to 2009. May all of the preparation and activity help us get to that educational dream as fast as possible. And here is to 2010 - where that dream is going to start to be realized. Here is to changing education and, ultimately, to changing lives for the better.



I just got off the phone with a colleague who has lost 35 pounds in 2 months.  How did he do it?  Data.  Well, data mixed with exercise and technology to be more precise.  He tried the Nike / iPod experiment and he’s a believer.

This professor of communications and lover of cheese steaks bought a new pair of running shoes a few months back.  Then, he bought the Nike sensor system – a small sensor you put in your shoe somehow.  This sensor sends information to your iPod during a run.  That data tells you (in real time) how you’re doing, but it also allows you to see any trends in your running after you upload the data to the Nike+ website.  Apparently he’s run about 340 miles and his average speed has increased by 1 mile per hour.  He can tell you how many calories he’s burned and he’s delighted to tell you how many pounds he has lost.  

See, data is changing how we live.  And data aggregation, data mining, and data analysis are making our lives better as technology gives us more and more ways to use it quickly and easily.  For example, my wife was called a few months back about her credit card.  Visa thought she might have lost her card.  Why?  Because she purchased a dress that was 2 sizes too big!  Guess what?  Her card had been stolen.  (No, she had not gained any weight…that would have been awkward!)  The credit card company looks for patterns and found something odd in the behavior of the card.  So they checked.

Data is everywhere we look today.  New cars will tell you how many miles you have driven on a tank of gas and how many more you are likely to get out of that same tank.  There is a website where you can upload a sickness in your family.  Then, you can look around your city, state, or the entire country to see where other people are sick too.  Data might help you avoid the plague!!!

Data is useful and becoming easier and easier to digest.  My phone tells me when my flight is late – a handy little feature when you fly 100,000 miles a year.  My refrigerator tells me when the filter is no longer doing any good.  Heck, even my daughter’s baby monitor tells us when the battery is low.  From weather patterns to traffic patterns, data can make our lives tremendously easier.

So why is it so hard to find data for schools?  This is especially true with online schools.  Shouldn’t you know where your students spend their time in classes?  Don’t you think knowing how often you’re B students post vs your D students post to a discussion would be a good piece of information?  Does the first day a student checks into class help determine their probability of dropping?  If you don’t know the answers to these’s time to.

One of my favorite tools I’ve ever gotten to work with is a business intelligence tool, created by IBM, that we overlay classes with in our system.  This tool allows me and my team to try and predict success, correlate at-risk behaviors to drops, and find benchmarks to hold students accountable to.  Did you know that in most online courses a larger class size (30-35) tends to have a better completion rate than classes with less than 30?  It’s been proven time and time again through data.  (Mind you – data can also beg lots of questions!)

Data mining is becoming easier and easier as technology evolves.  Data analysis is becoming more and more automated.  It’s time for your school’s programs to join the party!  Trends and operational reports are crucial to making accurate predictions and drawing quality conclusions today.  Accreditors are soon going to see this power and demand evidence of data-driven decisions for their schools.  But before the ‘stick’ of accreditation swats at you, shouldn’t you look to the carrot of quality?  Granted, this power can be abused.  (My boss loves to look at my completion rates and give me grief as my public speaking class isn’t the highest completed class on campus…it’s public speaking!)  But the data is there whether you mine it or not.  The information to help you increase retention is sitting there whether or not it’s analyzed.  

We study, analyze, and mine data for everything else today.  It’s time to get education up to speed, don’t you think?  Now if you’ll pardon me…I need to get to a store to buy a sensor.  My pants don’t quite fit like they did last year…


Jeff D Borden, M.A.

Senior Director of Teaching & Learning