Data spin and education cross-pollinisation

The need for teachers’ unions and the education research community to cross-pollinate is essential in an increasingly data-dense world if the best interests of public education are to be served, a summit held at Federation headquarters was told.

Associate Professor Greg Thompson told the Advancing the influence and impact of educational research in the public interest 2019-2022 summit of a case where the government of Canada’s Nova Scotia province had proposed a restructure of their public education system that would disband local school boards, remove principals from their teaching union and establish a teachers’ registration board, among other initiatives.

The restructure was based on a report by a University of Ontario researcher but the Nova Scotia teachers union had no relationship with local researchers who would speak back against the “clearly dodgy report”.

“It seemed to me that we had a snapshot of the problem: that the teachers’ union had no Nova Scotia academics, no Canadian academics, they could actually make interested in the story,” he told the summit of teacher unionists and academics from around the world.”

“It made me think about the politics of knowledge that revolves around policy making that we take for granted. My talk is really about the state of knowledge production in policy-making in contemporary times, as well as a sense of; this is what the future might look like.”

He spoke of the “datafication” of contemporary life and, by extension, education and that the rise of artificial intelligence, online assessment and “personalised learning” using software programs had brought into focus the verdict on such technologies for learning.

“Every day we produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, education is part of that,” he said. “Over the past two years alone more than 90 per cent of data in the world has been generated. So we are on the cusp of something very new.

“Digital technology, digital tools, mean that the frontier is almost unknowable. I’ve got colleagues working around the implication of artificial intelligence for education.

“I’ve done some work around big data, around notions of adaptive online assessment, personalised learning and I must admit I’m a bit of a cynic of the promise of that kind of technology.

“But the reality is here and now. Datafication is now and maybe we should really start thinking about these problems.”

He said we live in a time of the “information deluge”, where there is so much information available that it can be rendered and manipulated is so many ways. He posed the question of what and whom to believe, which once again doubled back into the collaboration with academics and researchers.

“It seems that what information does, is actually to atomise our society and polarise it,” he said.

“[For example] in the context of Donald Trump in the US tweeting about fake news all the time, [there] was this guy making threats to CNN because [he perceived] they were making fake news and he was threatening to come and kill them all.

“The point being that data and information have consequences. Legacy actors, or policy actors, commentators within this space, can choose data to support nearly any single argument they want to make. And that’s the problem.

“We often accuse people of being dataless and that’s not quite right. What actually happens is that people cherry-pick data to focus on one statistic in particular and use that to spin a whole narrative that the full set of the data actually can’t support.”

Research Fellow at the Manchester Metropolitan University Jean-Claude Couture presented a backgrounder to the summit posing there was little doubt that education policy making and research “must address the catalysts for deep change such as political, economic and technological shifts that call into question our current priorities within our often isolating and organisational boundaries”.

His document outlined a proposal to establish a global network of researchers and forward-thinking education leaders committed to initially engaging two strategic questions:

  • What are the most important strategic considerations for the teaching profession and educational researchers that could renew public education in our emergent futures?
  • In these contexts, how might scholars, teacher leaders and their organisations collaborate in advancing educational research that’s in the public interest?

— Scott Coomber