Big Data and Analytics in Education and Learning

With the growth of the internet, mobile technologies, multimedia, social media and the ever increasing Internet of Things, the data we can mine effectively as well as the types of information we can process from that data are evolving rapidly. In a recent report, McKinsey Global Institute estimated that the amount of data increase globally is roughly 40%. The term “Big data” has emerged to describe “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyse” (McKinsey, 2011). Big data represents data sets that can no longer be easily managed or analysed with traditional or common data management tools, methods and infrastructures. According to Gartner, the challenges of Big data come from three dimensions:

Volume: means the increase in data volumes within enterprise systems will cause a storage issue and a massive analysis issue.

Variety: means different types of information from various sources are available and need to be analysed, including databases, documents, e-mail, video, still images, audio, financial transactions, etc.

Velocity: means both how fast data is being produced and how fast the data must be processed to meet demand. This involves streams of data, structured record creation, and availability for access and delivery. (Gartner, 2011)

These characteristics bring new challenges to traditional Business Intelligence (BI) and analytics and require new approaches, new software tools, and new skill sets to manage and extract value from new, complex, unstructured and voluminous data sources.

Big Data has made its way onto the Gartner Hype Cycle for 2011 for mainstream adoption in 2 to 5 years. According to Gartner, “By 2015, companies that have adopted big data and extreme information management will begin to outperform unprepared competitors by 20% in every available financial metric”. It is predictable that big data will provide new opportunities for data service providers, content/information publishers, and software companies to offer optimized services and platforms that help organizations make better business decisions. For example, Oracle has developed a comprehensive Big data strategy, which includes releasing Hadoop data-management software, a NoSQL database and R analytics. IBM has also unveiled InfoSphere BigInsights platform for big data analysis. Many governments, sectors and corporations have seen Big data as a key strategic business asset of the future development and have started to experiment with Big data technologies as a complementary or alternative form to traditional data management and analysis.

How will HE institutions address the opportunities and challenges for Big data in education? According to MGI Big Data report, Education in the US is the tenth largest data sector, which stores and manages approximately 267 petabytes of information. However, compared to other sectors, Education faces higher hurdles because of the lack of a data-driven mind-set and available data. With an increased focus on such issues as data-informed accountability and transparency, emphasising student retentions and academic achievements, teacher performance and added value and productivity in education, big data will play an important role in guiding education reform, helping institutions to develop business strategies and assisting educators to improve teaching and learning. Predictably, while all sectors are facing the challenges of making effective use big data, several general development trends for big data in education can be detected for the future, for example:

  • One of the key challenges for big data in education is to develop data informed mind–sets and to make sure that educational data are effectively managed and available for end users. It is clear that the use of Big data is different from traditional data mining, and it requires new approaches, new tools, and new skills to deliver the promise of BI and analytics. In order to optimise the use of big data, institutions will need not only to put the right talent and technology in place but must also structure their workflows and incentives to promote data informed decisions at all levels.
  • One of the real opportunities for big data in education is to integrate information from multiple data sources. This means working with significantly greater data sets to store and mine all the unstructured and structured data to which institutions have access. These will include scientific research, library resources and administrative information, as well as data sets collected via LMS platforms and other sources to help institutions make smart decisions that lead to real success on e.g. development strategies and organisation management, student recruitment, international markets and intelligent curricula.
  • A shift from data collecting to data connecting. The potential of big data and analytics in education is to connect the unstructured and structured data effectively to identify and leverage the real learning patterns that lead to student success. Mining unstructured and informal connections and information produced by students in this way, including blogs, social media networks, machine sensors and location-based data, will allow educators to uncover facts and patterns they weren’t able to recognise in the past.
  • A new way to manage and use much larger sets of real-time student data. The real-time, contextual data could be used to provide real-time intelligence about learners and their collective/connected learning environments and contribute to open-ended and student-directed learning. For example, mobile analytics can be used to take advantage of the contextual data including tracking learner attention, behaviour management, truancy, teacher performance evaluation and school dashboards, etc.

Big data related technologies and applications:

  • Cloud computing,
  • Linked data
  • Metadata
  • Mashup
  • Stream processing
  • Visualization
  • Google’s MapReduce and Google File System
  • MapReduce & Hadoop
  • InfoSphere &BigInsights

Further reading:

Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.

“Big data” prep: 5 things IT should do now.

Big Data and Education.

Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2011,,

Penetrating the Fog: Analytics in Learning and Education.

Cloud computing in institutions – non core business or critical data?

I attended a workshop organised by the JISC-funded projectReview of the Environmental and Organisational Implications of Cloud Computing in Higher and Further Education in Birmingham to explore the future scenarios for usage of Cloud Computing in HE and FE recently. A range of experts from the sector were invited to discuss the potential applications of cloud computing in institutions, type of organisational services, structures and strategies that might be needed to make effective use of this emerging service model. The participants were divided into two groups: institutions and cloud providers and five activities were specifically designed to facilitate the discussions.

I was involved in the institution group with a good mixture of people including senior managers of universities, directors of IT service, IT consultants and legal consultants etc. Several main points arose from our discussion:

1. Cloud computing is likely to be adopted by institutions in the following areas: 1) email, office applications and basic data storage, 2) infrastructure (operational systems); 3) Large scale data storage (Achieve, library);4) VLE, etc. Clearly, those are non core business or business critical to institutions are most likely to use cloud computing services. More complex, more customised data would be more difficult to move to cloud.

2. Security and privacy are two of institutions’ top concerns when considering moving to the cloud. For example, if an institution stores records of students in a cloud, what guarantees can be made about the security? Institutions will expect that the cloud provider will prevent unauthorized access to the information and sensitive data will remain private.

3. Cost savings is one of the main drivers for institutions to move to the cloud computing. However, it is still a question whether cloud computing will reduce the overall IT cost of the university. For example, if an institution has decided to move staff emails to a cloud provider, there may still be some staff, e.g. those involved in military and some commercial organisations, who are unwilling to correspond via cloud-based email. The institution will therefore have to keep the email service for those staff. In this case, it would be arguable whether it is cost effective to maintain the staff email services through both institutional and cloud providers.

4. Private cloud, regional cloud or academic cloud facilities could be appropriate for institutions to explore cloud computing services at the present. It is also suggested that institutional consortia might be a good way to reduce the cost of cloud computing services through negotiating with cloud providers.

5. There is a need for a holistic approach towards institutions’ IT strategies in response to cloud computing applications, such as revising IT policies, changes in management structures, etc. For instance, institutions may need to develop a specific policy for cloud computing provisions; IT Manager will need to manage contracts and monitor Service Level Agreements with external suppliers and the role and skills of the IT staff will need to change too.

More information about the workshop and the project are available at We also have updated and published the CETIS Cloud computing briefing paper recently and which is available here .

Cloud Computing in Institutions

In the 2009 Horizon Report, Cloud Computing is anticipated as one of the key technology trends that is likely to have a significant impact on teaching and learning environment within a year’s time. The term cloud computing has become another buzz word in the tech industry, IT press and increasingly popular within the education sector. What does cloud computing really mean for institutions? How is it best to broach the benefits and risks that cloud computing may bring to Higher Education Institutions? A CETIS cloud computing activity group has been set up to look at the various issues facing institutions when it comes to considering the educational uses of cloud computing. My colleagues Wilbert, Mark and I have carried out some initial activities around cloud computing to explore how it has been used/might be used in education. As a result, we have gathered a collection of resources, including blogs, articles and academic papers which provide the latest discussions, developments and applications of cloud computing in education which are available at delicious with a tag #cetis-cloud-wg. We also conducted an online survey to collect some basic data on the use of cloud computing in institutions in order to help us understand the current situations and the main issues that institutions are facing when considering adopting cloud computing. Around 58 people participated in the survey and the full survey report is available here. Furthermore, a cloud computing session has been proposed to gather ideas and initiate more in-depth discussions on the issues at the CETIS conference in November this year. We have also planned a CETIS public event on cloud computing to provide opportunities for IS managers and anyone who is interested in cloud computing to share their thoughts and experiences on developing and using cloud computing services.

Based on the literature review and analysis of the current cloud computing service provisions and applications in institutions, we are also busy producing a briefing paper to introduce cloud computing to educators and help them to gain a better understanding of the conception of cloud technology and its impact on teaching and learning in institutions. The briefing is near complete, and will be presented in printed form later. We very much welcome you input and suggestes at this stage. For more information about the CETIS cloud computing activity group contact Wilbert Kraan at or Mark Power at