Big data and PISA

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General

Big data is the foundation on which education can reinvent its business model and build the coalition of governments, businesses, and social entrepreneurs that can bring together the evidence, innovation and resources to make lifelong learning a reality for all. So the next educational superpower might be the one that can combine the hierarchy of institutions with the power of collaborative information flows and social networks. More than anything else, this will hinge on getting people to generate innovative applications on top of big data. It’s about the co-creation of governance, about delivering more progressive and better policies than the industrial work organisation and the bureaucratic and litigation-oriented tools and strategies that we are used to in education.

This isn’t just about improved transparency and public accountability in education. Throwing education data into the public space does not change the ways in which students learn, teachers teach and schools operate. It does not lead to people doing anything with that data and transforming education in ways that will actually change education practice. On the contrary, it often results simply in adversarial relationships between civil society and government over the control and ownership of information.

The prerequisite for using big data as a catalyst to change education practice is to get out of the “read-only” mode of our societies. It’s about combining transparency with collaboration. The way in which educational institutions often work is that you have a single expert sitting somewhere in a corner who determines the application of rules and regulations affecting hundreds of thousands of students and teachers – and nobody can figure out how those decisions were made. Big data can lead to big trust if we make that data available, train civic innovators, experiment, create a maker culture. It is no surprise that OECD’s new Survey of Adult Skills shows that the more proficient people are in literacy, the more they trust others.

Collaborative consumption provides a great example of this. These days, people share their cars and even their apartments with strangers. Collaborative consumption has made people micro-entrepreneurs – and its driving engine is building trust between strangers. Think about it: in the business world, we have evolved from trusting people to provide information, to willingly handing over credit card data, to connecting trustworthy strangers in all sorts of marketplaces. We are light-years away from that when it comes to data about education.

But here’s how we can get a little closer. Some years ago we created PISA, a global survey that examines the skills of 15-year-olds in ways that are comparable across countries. PISA has created huge amounts of big data about the quality of schooling outcomes. PISA has also helped to change the balance of power in education by making public policy in the field of education more transparent and more efficient. At the micro-level, there were still a lot of sceptics: teachers thought this was just another accountability tool through which governments wanted to control them. So what did we do? This year we put in place a kind of “MyPISA” – PISA-type instruments that we circulated out into the field. The PISA based test for schools provides comparisons with other schools anywhere else in the world, schools that are similar to them or schools that are very different.

Suddenly, the dynamic has changed; schools are beginning to use that data. Ten schools in Fairfax county in Virginia, for example, have started a year-long discussion among principals and teachers based on the results of the first reports. With the help of district offices (and the OECD), they will be conducting secondary analyses to dig deeper into their data and understand how their schools compare with each other and with other schools around the world. Those principals and teachers are beginning to see themselves as teammates – not just spectators – on a global playing field. In other words, in Fairfax county, big data is building big trust.

For more information on
OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
The Role of Data in Promoting Growth and Well-Being
 Photo credit: big data mind mapping,info graphics / Shutterstock

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