by Alice Bonasio

Using data management to build personalized learning experiences

Feb 11, 2019
Education IndustryMarketsTechnology Industry

Microsoft’s latest acquisition shows how combining pedagogy and technology can dramatically improve learning outcomes.

Certification / Graduate silhouette surrounded by abstract technology symbols and imagery.
Credit: Monsitj / Getty Images

“Today’s students will graduate into a world that will be dramatically different – and changing faster than ever. They will enter a workforce where job functions, roles and even categories will be significantly altered, and will face social and global challenges beyond what we can imagine today,” says Steve Liffick, General Manager of Education Strategy and Platforms at Microsoft. Research recently conducted by the company – “The class of 2030 and life-ready learning: The technology imperative” – concluded that student-centric approaches will be critical to achieving this.

We need to radically change our approach if we are to prepare those students for the increasingly creative, collaborative, digitally-infused world they will enter as adults. It’s not just a matter of giving students the latest hardware either. Personalized learning, supported by technology, will help students develop strong social-emotional and advanced cognitive skills – such as adaptive and creative problem solving, creativity, digital literacy, and ethical decision-making – needed to prepare them for work and life.

Building personalized learning initiatives

Access to computers must be backed up by a robust pedagogical model centered on student voice, choice, and collaboration, combined with the intentional deployment of technology. With that in mind, the Fresno Unified School District developed a Personalized Learning Initiative (PLI) and partnered with Microsoft education to understand how this novel approach impacted student learning and teacher practice.

Students in the classroom of PLI teachers achieved higher English language arts (ELA) scores on the district’s spring assessment, and increased collaboration with digital tools. Students who had teachers involved in the PLI showed statistically significant differences, performing better in six out of ten subjects (compared to those whose teachers were not involved in the PLI) in The California Department of Education spring 2017 scores on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests.

Translating data into learning outcomes

Data is arguably one of the most powerful tools we have in modern education. It can empower teachers and administrators with insights, illuminate potential issues, streamline inefficiencies, and help personalize the learning experience for students. There is building evidence and compelling case studies demonstrating how data management can be leveraged to help schools achieve better results for students by customizing the learning experience.

BrightBytes DataSense Platform – which has been recently acquired by Microsoft – employs advanced analytics, including machine learning, psychometrics, and predictive analytics to organize and visualize actionable data across research-based frameworks to drive student learning. Its Clarity platform currently serves over 25,000 schools globally. By integration of DataSense into Microsoft’s suite of products, Liffick says Microsoft will help school and district IT leaders to better collect, manage and explicitly control access to their data, helping them to transition to the cloud and simplifying data management and providing explicit security and control over that data.

“Efficient, wide-spread data integration lies at the core of BrightBytes’ analytics work, and Microsoft can make this a reality for all schools much more quickly,” says BrightBytes CEO, Traci Burgess commenting on the acquisition. “Schools around the world will benefit greatly from capabilities across data integration, interoperability and provisioning.”

Designing collaborative pedagogical models

Key to success is establishing a pedagogical model that fosters a culture where students collaborate and take ownership over their learning. Increasing access to technology for students and teaching, alongside technology-specific training backed up by an online community providing feedback and support, were demonstrated to be very effective strategies in the Fresno case study. The PLI helped students across all ethnic backgrounds achieve higher scores in standardized tests of English Language Arts and Math, and participating students were 25 percent more likely than their peers to meet or exceed California standards in English and Math.

“Students of teachers noted a shift in social and emotional skills. By encouraging greater collaboration through digital tools, the initiative helped students improve growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness,” explains Liffick. After one year of the PLI, students were 32 percent more likely to collaborate with their peers on projects, and teachers in the initiative were 27 percent more likely to digitally collaborate to creatively design their learning activities, providing students with new ways to learn.

Technology democratizing learning

Dan Ayoub – GM Mixed Reality, AI and STEM Education at Microsoft says that they are excited to scale these tangible benefits to more schools, as well as eventually integrating the data analytics capacity with other emerging technologies such as Mixed Reality. “We are still in the exploratory stages at this time, but we are certainly looking to integrate DataSense throughout the Microsoft Education portfolio to help our customers use data to drive better learning outcomes,” he says

This case study shows how a considered and strategic approach that combines pedagogy with technology can provide dramatic and measurable results for teachers and students. Crucially, it is not an initiative that was restricted to a high-income “bubble” either, as the subjects were some of the country’s most economically disadvantaged students. As the fourth largest district in California, Fresno Unified supports 75,000 students, the majority of whom come from low-income households, and 22 percent are English learners.

This data shows that more personalized and collaborative teaching practices are driving better learning outcomes, and that a student-centric approach supported by the right technologies is critical, as is having a coherent data and analytic strategy to provide evidence and insights. Furthermore, establishing long-term relationships with partners who are specialists in critical areas is key to facilitating the building of these future-ready skills.