This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age

Big Data Makes Big Inroads into Schools

Introduction to a special report on the ways technology is remaking every aspect of education—bringing top-notch courses to the world's poorest citizens and reshaping the way all students learn

KYLE BEAN (illustration); MITCH PAYNE (photograph)

In Brief

  • Data analytics and streaming video, among other technologies, are filtering from the consumer market-place into college and K–12 classrooms.
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) deliver free university classes to remote regions.
  • Adaptive learning platforms closely track student progress, tailor content to individual abilities and predict how a student will perform. But critics caution we must invest as much in great teachers as in technology.

More on this Topic

Classrooms haven't changed much in the past few centuries. Students attend class, take notes and do their homework. The teacher lectures and once in a while administers a test. Students get their grades and move on to the next topic. By and large, students—especially the most disadvantaged ones—attend the school or university closest to their home, regardless of its quality.

These routines are starting to change. In a small but growing number of schools, students watch lectures online and come to class prepared to tackle assignments and collaborate with teachers and peers. They interact with computer programs that allow them to work at their own pace, regardless of what the rest of the class is doing. Teachers rely on those same programs to grade tests and essays, allowing them to closely track more students at once. And local schools are no longer a pupil's only option. Start-ups and nonprofits make high-quality courses available online to anyone with an Internet connection.

What is driving this digital revolution? One factor is that schools and universities are under greater pressure than ever before. More and more students are pursuing higher levels of education at a time when budget-strapped principals and universities cannot hire the staff they need. At the same time, governments and institutions (prodded by employers) are raising standards for what students should know at every stage of school.

Many see technology as a solution. But skeptics think it improves little on what teachers can do and poses a threat to student privacy.

In this special section, Scientific American explores the frontiers of the new digital age in education and what it means for parents, students, teachers and society.

The Editors

Rights & Permissions

This article was originally published with the title "Big Data Goes to School."

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