Minding Our Own Data

It's no surprise that much of our personal data is being collected more than ever these days. Some of it may be without our even knowing (such as "sneaky" browser cookies), or perhaps with our consent (Facebook apps for example). Some of our personal data we willingly exchange for services, such as when we use Google to search for things. We know that our searches are going to be "mined" by Google to provide ads that tailor closely to our needs or demographics, and we realize that that is how Google makes money so that we can have a "killer" search engine.

The world is filled with data. Much of our economy centers around the collection, manipulation, selling, and usage of this data.

Recently, my team of teachers did a lesson with 1st graders, collecting leaves on a walk in the woods in order to collect data to determine which leaf (and therefore tree) was most represented in our woods (maple, birch, or oak). It's a wonderful yearly activity: we enjoy the walk outside, then bring all the leaves back in the classroom to sort and tally the results, and then students bring their tally "posters" to the computer lab and create bar graphs in a graphics program with me. By the time they get to me, the leaves are long gone, but I try to help them remember how many leaves they had, what a mess all of that data was, and how we've been able to harness meaning from their sampling or collection. The entire process is a great introduction to scientific inquiry and understanding how to collect and make meaning from data.

Just like the leaves in the woods, there are piles and piles of data all around us. More and more, apps are able to harness the data and turn it into something meaningful, and perhaps even a source of motivation. For years, I've been using the Nike+ Runner's app to track each run I take. I can look back at my speed, my calories burned, my total mileage, and my record runs. It is incredibly motivational to have this data and get real feedback on how I'm doing. The data validates the goals I am setting for myself and makes me want to beat previous goals.

The other day, a new geek tool/toy came to the market: the Jawbone UP Wristband. I'm not sure I need one, but I know I want one, but because it's so cool! In a nutshell, you wear this wristband and it collects data throughout the day ---and night!--- in order to help you live a healthier life. For instance, it will track your GPS routes, steps, distance, calories burned, pace, intensity level, and your active time vs. your inactive time. While sleeping, it will automatically be able to tell when you are in deep sleep vs. light sleep as well as track your sleep time. You can even use it to track your meals: take a picture of the food you're eating, and then later report how you feel. Overtime, all this data will hopefully help you make choices for a healthier lifestyle. (There are other features as well, such as vibrating when it's determined you've been dormant too long, so you'll get up and move around, and it can wake you up during the ideal moment in your natural sleep cycle).

Wes Fryer and I were discussing this collection of data and he came up with a great idea for an app. Imagine an app that could track a teacher's movements within his/her classroom on a daily basis. How interesting it would be as a teacher to look at this information (perhaps on a "heat map"), weekly or monthly, in order to gain insight into where I spend most of my time in the classroom. What would this information tell me? Am I moving around the room enough? Do I tend to stay in the front of the classroom more than other areas? Does this mean I am mostly lecturing to students rather than facilitating student work? Are there certain pockets of the room that need more of my time than others? Why?

While chatting about this idea with me, Wes suddenly jumped to an even cooler app idea: what if each student wore some type of sensor and a teacher could actually identify how often he/she spent time with each student. In other words, set the sensor to count "x-distance" from the student, which would demonstrate time spent 1-on-1 or in a small group with each student. What information could be drawn from this? Would this bring evidence that a particular student is needing more support from the teacher? That others are needing less? Would it help the teacher assess that some students might be gettingless interaction than he/she would desire? I know when I was in the classroom I would often reflect when I felt I hadn't been able to spend much time with certain students (due to a variety of reasons: perhaps they were absent, perhaps my support was needed elsewhere), and I would make the extra effort to spend time with them, perhaps by inviting them to have lunch with me in a small group setting. Being able to track this data of actual interaction would certainly help me make sure all students are getting the attention they need from me.

Think about this moving into collecting data on which students get called on most frequently. I used to assign a student this role during certain lessons, keeping data on how many girls I called on compared to boys, for instance. Imagine if I could once again have this taken care of on a consistent basis with an app and be able to chart this over an extended period of time. This data could be very useful.

I can see a counter argument to these ideas: that this echoes of "Big Brother" concerns, and what's stopping this data from being used in counter-productive ways, such as to evaluate a teacher's performance, or a disgruntled parent using the data to "prove" that his/her child did not receive equitable attention. The data could in fact become a piece of evaluating a teacher's performance, but I would hope that it would be completely controlled privately by the teacher with the good intentions of analyzing one's own performance, with the goal of becoming a better teacher.

Data is everywhere. It can be manipulated in infinite ways. I'd like to see more tools like my Nike+ app or the Jawbone UP to be able to collect data that I can use to inspect patterns and behaviors in order to more closely examine my own teaching in order to learn from the data, set goals, and improve my personal performance.