Mar 20 2014
Data Analytics

CoSN 2014: How Do Big Data and Digital Learning Improve Education?

A candid conversation between two prominent voices in education dominated the Opening Town Hall Forum.

One thing that Dr. Yong Zhao and the Hon. Bob Wise agree on is this: K–12 education isn’t giving the nation’s students everything they need in its current form.

The two engaged in a spirited debate on this and many other issues during the Opening Town Hall Forum of the Consortium for School Networking’s 2014 conference on Wednesday afternoon in Washington, D.C. Moderated by Deb Delisle, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, the forum centered on this fundamental question: Can Big Data and innovative digital learning work together?

Zhao, presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, is an internationally known scholar, author and speaker whose work focuses on the implications of globalization and technology on education.

A former West Virginia congressman and governor, Wise is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a D.C.–based nonprofit dedicated to reforming U.S. high schools so that all students graduate with the skills they’ll need to succeed in college and the workforce.

Together, they gave CoSN 2014 attendees a thought-provoking hour of debate on the problems with existing teaching and learning models, assessment, educational “indoctrination” and more. Here’s a sampling from their individual remarks:

Zhao’s Take

  • “We seem to have general agreement of what Big Data is. When you hear that something is data-driven, you assume it’s good.”

  • “Human learning needs detours. We need to get lost sometimes.”

  • “Big Data can be very useful, if you know where you want to go. But it has to be driven by students. Is past experience a good guide to the future? Or do we need a paradigm shift?”

Wise’s Take

  • “The ultimate goal of personalized learning is to make sure that all children can think critically, engage in self-reflection. A lot of this will be determined by the people in this room.”

  • “The issues of Big Data must be addressed — how its privacy is maintained, how secure it is. There has to be a lot of discussion, interaction and policy development.”

  • “Technology has to be part of the ecosystem of teaching. We want the teacher to be able to do exactly what we expect a doctor to do — and that is to do what is necessary to best meet the child’s needs.”

Tough Questions, Tough Talk

Following Zhao and Wise’s individual remarks from the podium, Delisle facilitated a conversation between the two speakers. Her questions sparked some pointed responses. Here are the highlights:

  • “Student development isn’t linear; students aren’t patients. We aren’t curing students. We’re helping them grow. It’s important to channel their growth. I’m very concerned about building a constraining environment.” — Zhao

  • “Even doctors have trouble dealing with new symptoms, new diseases. Even when given all the data, they don’t necessarily know what it means. Sometimes the data has no meaning.” — Zhao

  • “You want the doctor to be able to intervene when there’s a problem; the same is true for the teacher. You use data to help assist in that development process. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation.” — Wise

  • “Technology — and data, if applied effectively — can be the game-changer here. But it has to be changed effectively. If parents choose to opt their children out because of concerns about how that student data will be used, [their students] lose out.” — Wise

  • “I’m not sure that personalized learning should be driven by the teacher; it should be personalized by the students themselves. The teacher is just there to help.” — Zhao

  • “[My hope is that, eight to 10 years from now,] students who are sitting in fourth grade right now, who will be filling jobs not yet known, will graduate as truly lifelong learners. We’ll also be talking about the new accountability system that doesn’t measure [student achievement] based on standardized test scores but rather, with help of technology, how they’re doing in a lot of different areas — what used to be called soft skills.” — Wise

  • “What I hope will have happened is that we won’t be talking about grades, that we won’t be discipline-driven. What I think will happen is that we’ll be having the same conversation. I fear that indoctrination will still be happening.” — Zhao

For more coverage from CoSN's annual conference, check out our CoSN 2014 conference hub.

New Data from CoSN Is In

CoSN leaders dedicated a few minutes of the Opening Town Hall Forum to announce new research data and resources for districts.

The organization’s second annual K–12 IT Leadership Survey reveals, among other things, that 34 percent of district IT leaders will work with increased budgets this year. Unfortunately, nearly half report that their budgets aren’t adequate to support existing equipment, meet school board expectations or implement new technologies. For full findings, visit

A just-released toolkit aims to help districts meet the challenges of administering high-stakes online assessments, including those mandated by the Common Core State Standards. Raising the BAR: Becoming Assessment Ready includes an executive summary; white paper; frequently asked questions; expert recommendations; and case studies from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Indiana, and West Side School District No. 202 in Idaho. Learn more at


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What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.