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Big Data in Education: The 5 Types That Matter

By Jose Ferreira, Knewton founder & CEO

Big data in education is a hot topic, and getting hotter. Proponents tout its potential for reform. Detractors raise privacy concerns. Skeptics don’t see the point of it all.

Few people seem to have a clear understanding of what big data in education means, its scope, what will inevitably result, or even the differences between fundamental types of data. The responsibility for clarifying and communicating this understanding starts with the organizations building data platforms or applications. 

Take a recent example. The Gates-funded initiative inBloom recently received scathing critiques that it would share confidential information without parental permission, along with other security concerns. InBloom’s mistake, in my opinion, is that it holds personally identifiable information (PII) but didn’t communicate a transparent payoff to users. For an education company to get big data right, it needs to be on the opposite side of both of those issues: avoid holding unnecessary PII and communicate clearly how its service makes transparent good use of users’ data.

(For the record: Knewton doesn’t hold any PII unless a user is able to consent and wants us to use the information for a specific reason: to create a private learning profile that can be carried by that user from app to app.)

Education has always had the capacity to produce a tremendous amount of data, more than maybe any other industry. First, academic study requires many hours of schoolwork and homework, 5+ days per week, for years. These extended interactions with materials produce a huge quantity of information. Second, education content is tailor-made for big data, generating cascade effects of insights thanks to the high correlation between concepts.

Only recently have advances in technology and data science made it possible to unlock these vast data sets. The benefits range from more effective self-paced learning to tools that enable instructors to pinpoint interventions, create productive peer groups, and free up class time for creativity and problem solving.

At Knewton, we divide educational data into five types: one pertaining to student identity and onboarding, and four student activity-based data sets that have the potential to improve learning outcomes. They’re listed below in order of how difficult they are to attain.

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Ed Tweets of the Month

New Knerds

Meet four new team members › 

Meet our three newest summer interns ›

Ed Efforts We Admire

The world needs more programmers. In the U.S. alone, demand for software developers is expected to increase 30% by 2010 — way above the average for other jobs. Codecademy hopes to help fill this need by providing a fun, accessible, engaging, and free way for anyone to learn how to code. Students can engage with the Codecademy community as they build interactive websites, games, and apps using newfound skills in web fundamentals and programming languages like HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Python, and Ruby. Says Founder and CEO Zach Sims, “Programming makes us think in new and different ways.  We love exposing people to programming in an easy, fun, community-oriented environment.”


Business Development Director and Associates

Lead Platform Engineer

Human Resources Lead

Sr. Security Engineer

API Integrations Team Lead

Implementation Architect

Software Engineer, NoSQL

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Visit for the most up-to-date listings of Knewton events.

July 18
Kaplan TechStars

Tonight (July 18), Knewton is delighted to host a rooftop party bringing together teachers, VCs, entrepreneurs, reporters, executives from the country's biggest publishers, and everyone in between. The mixer will feature the 10 education startups selected for this year's inaugural Kaplan/TechStars EdTech Accelerator. Tonight's party is full, but we're planning many more — subscribe here to be notified of upcoming events. 

July 19 - 20
AT&T Education Hackathon


As part of a special section on digital education in Nature, Scientific American does a deep dive into the future of big data and adaptive learning in education, including a profile of how Knewton is changing the way students at schools like Arizona State University learn. Read more ›

The Financial Times pins technology as key to the future of education: "The obvious signs of this revolution are the laptops, tablets and digital whiteboards widely available in lecture halls and classrooms in developed countries. The real innovation, however, is in the software and delivery of education services, and in the analytical tools that underpin it." Read more ›

"There is a hunger for proof that students are achieving mastery, not just covering material," writes Anya Kamenetz in a recent profile on Knewton in The Daily Beast. Read more ›


Why College Has Become So Costly (Washington Post) 

The Gates Effect (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Digital Trends Shifting the Role of Teachers (Education Week)



This fall, Knewton is partnering with General Assembly to help bridge the gap between education and employment. Knewton engineers will be sharing their knowledge and expertise with students in GA's Computer Science Fundamentals course. After graduation, Knewton will interview top grads of the course for the opportunity to join the Knewton team.