In a sign of the growing energy of the Open Data community, the White House held two “datapaloozas” back to back this week, following Tuesday’s event on safety data with yesterday’s on education. The Education Datapalooza, organized by Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology in the Department of Education, attracted some 600 educators, developers, and data geeks to a large auditorium in Washington’s Reagan Building. The morning’s presentations were followed by a science fair-type expo with demos by more than forty companies. We also had information there about the Open Data 500, and found a number of companies that are new candidates for our study.
Three things were striking to me about this event: The commitment of the new breed of education entrepreneurs, the great variety of approaches they’re taking, and the ways in which “Open Data” has come to cover a range of “open” approaches.
For education, a promising piece of the Open Data opportunity is to open up an individual’s data to that person. In the same way that federal agencies and companies are starting to give consumers access to their medical records or data on their energy usage, the education innovators are looking for ways to give students access to their records in ways that can help them personalize their educational plans. This remains a tough challenge, since privacy concerns have stymied some early efforts to make student records more accessible; witness the trouble that the data company InBloom faced in several states. Some companies are trying to solve the problem with personal data vaults like those that Personal.com has pioneered.
If personal data like this can be liberated and applied in the right way, the rewards can be economic value as well as individual achievement. The benchmark McKinsey report on Open Data, released last October, found this kind of individualized data can be a major factor in generating about $1 trillion a year in value from Open Data in education. In McKinsey’s analysis, individualized data can help students improve their job prospects and future earnings by improving their education.
Personalized education could help create $1 trillion a year in value
Many more companies at yesterday’s Datapalooza focus on a practical question: They’re applying Open Data to make higher education more affordable. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the event, college affordability has become a major concern for all but the wealthy. “While college has never been more important,” he said, “it’s never been more expensive.” He told stories of middle-class families he meets all over the country who are hoping for some relief. In one heartrending encounter, he met a young woman with a twin brother whose parents could only afford to send one of the siblings to college; they hadn’t yet decided which one. Cost, he said, is one reason why the U.S. has slipped in a generation from being number 1 in college graduation rates to number 12 in the world – an unacceptable change.
Some of the new companies focused on affordability could help. Several are using data from the governent’s IPEDS system and other government data to help high school students and their families learn what the true cost of college will be, and how to handle it. Colleges, like new cars, have both a sticker price and a real price, which takes financial aid into account. While college costs are still out of sight for many Americans, tools using true-cost data show that even some elite schools may be more affordable than eligible applicants may realize. College Abacus shows students this with personalized data on college costs, in Spanish as well as English, while Possibility U provides a map showing financial aid opportunities, chances of acceptance, and other factors to help students find their best choice schools.
One new site will help students calculate the ROI of different college choices.
Other companies are approaching the cost issue from different angles. Boundless has used freely available content to create a series of inexpensive, high-quality electronic textbooks – a potential godsend to the many students who can’t afford texts for their courses. FindTomorrow, now in beta, will help students predict their future income, based on their school choice, major, and other factors, so they can get the best return for their educational investment. And the Departments of Education and Treasury are working together on tools to help handle the burden of student loans.
As U.S. Deputy CTO Nick Sinai said in opening yesterday’s event, “Data by itself doesn’t do anything. Data doesn’t teach your children. Data is only useful if you apply it.” Improving American education is a massive challenge, but the new Open Data applications are beginning to provide some solutions.
- Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor, OpenDataNow.com