In Dave Eggers’ new novel The Circle, the titular tech company—reminiscent in many ways of Facebook or Google—decides to start collecting and analyzing information about every student in the United States, the better to improve the education system as a whole. Everything from grades to individual answers on tests ends up stored in The Circle’s massive datasets.
Eggers’ work is a cautionary tale, and a work of fiction, but there are signs that data analytics could eventually inform the educational realm in some very big ways. Take the case of Massachusetts-based Panorama Education, which collects and analyzes classroom- and school-level surveys from teachers, parents and students; the startup just received $4 million in seed funding from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose nascent philanthropy has focused in part on educational initiatives. A handful of heavy-hitting VC firms and philanthropy arms, including Google Ventures and Yale University, are also contributing.
Some 4,000 schools in 26 states already use Panorama’s surveys-and-analytics offerings to crunch feedback and (hopefully) improve school programs. In contrast to other data-collection programs, the vast majority of which rely on users signing onto a Website, Panorama offers the option of collecting data via paper surveys, which boosts its reach into lower-tech institutions. The startup has chosen to focus on K-12 education, and will use the $4 million from Zuckerberg to layer more analytics tools into its current offerings—and to expand its reach beyond the current audience.
Panorama keeps survey data safe via the usual combination of SSL technology, remote SSH access protected with unique encrypted key files, two-factor authentications, and other means. On the infrastructure side of things, the company relies on Amazon Web Services (AWS), which comes with its own security protocols. Panorama claims that, when combined, these standards exceed even the stringent FERPA and HIPAA requirements.
Panorama isn’t the only company operating in the somewhat-esoteric realm of learning analytics; but if it succeeds, and if more Silicon Valley firms begin pumping money into similar projects in a high-profile way, education could become the next hot (or overinflated, depending on your point of view) Big Data industry.
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