Big Impact with Big Data: Towards a New Research Design

This is part one of a two part series on my opening keynote of the Big Data Smart Technology Forum held at Tianjin University of Technology on October 13.

I come to you today with a challenge. We have a problem in educational research and I hope we do not recreate inequities of the past in our era of Big Data.

For example, An examination of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a common Big Data source, provides a bleak picture of educational progress in the United States.

First in the United States centuries of systemic racism have left massive scars on our great nation. As you can see your chances of born into poverty often have more to do with ethnicity and race than any other factor.

These disparities translate into the classroom. As you can see White and Asian students consistently outscore their peers on the NAEP Assessment. In each f the three years highlighted significant differences remain.

The United States Federal Government throws a lot of money at this problem. Last year the Department of Education spent over 15 billion dollars.

The Institute of Educational Sciences, alone invested over 600 million dollars in research.

Yet if you look at trends in NAEP scores they remain virtually flat. We see some gains in early reading scores but these fizzle in the upper grades and poverty and race still play a major role explaining variance in scores.

I ask you, “Why?” Many of you here today seek degrees in management statistics but you do not need a PhD to understand that 15 billion dollars and no change in progress is a bad Return on Investment.

We need a new paradigm for educational research and Big Data analytics overall. For too long our higher educational systems reinforces inequities and concentrates wealth amongst the elite rather than the people. We chase citations rather than helping communities.

I ask each of you in your respective fields to think back to how many studies over the last forty years have been truly influential. Research that has changed lives? I know for many of you you can probably count these studies on one hand. Again a bad ROI. So where does all this money go?

It doesn’t make it into the communities or our classrooms. Instead we create a false scarcity of intellectual capital. University professors, usually themselves from privileged backgrounds, apply for grants, train new PhD students, do research, and publish in journals that few folks will ever read. Our elitist economy runs on a currency of citation counts. The kicker… the public must pay exorbitant fees to publishers in order to read the research that their tax dollars already paid for. It is a double taxation cloistering money in the hands of the few while the many suffer.

I challenge you today to move our focus out of citations and into the community. In order to have a big impact with Big Data we need a new research paradigm. I turn to the field of community engaged scholarship which grew out of the nursing fields.

This methodological approach suggests we merge our research, teaching, and service into a common direction of helping the communities in which we live. Our research should focus on people not participants. They must be involved in the work and not simply a sample size. Significance should have as much to do with community impact as it does with p-values.


Yet in this era of Big Data I take community engaged scholarship a step further. Today I call us to an emerging field of digitally engaged scholarship. I define this as an interdisciplinary approach of designed based research using distributed talent and networked technologies to open source our knowledge creation for the greater good of both local and global communities.

Interdisciplinary Research

First digitally engaged scholarship must take an interdisciplinary approach. The problems the world faces are too big for one person, or even one nation to solve alone. Pollution, climate change, education. We must all work together.

We also need specialists when it comes to big data. If you try to master all of the fields necessary in Big Data you will be a master of none. In this room we have folks from public health, management, statistics, and public health. Let’s work together.

We will need front end and back end engineers to help scrape, collect, and and analyze data. We need management statistics teams well versed in Python, R, Hadoop and libraries that someone in this room may soon development.

You can’t do it alone.

Formative Design Based Research

We can trace our empirical designs and scientific inquiry back to Kantian humanity. Our commitment to objectivity has guided science for centuries. I say its time to embrace our subjectivity. Have clear goals rather than just questions. Louis Pasteur wasn’t just searching for answers when he developed methods to ensure food safety. He had a problem to fix. Do the same.

Digitally engaged scholarship requires the use of Design Based Research techniques. These methodologies draw on many names but I use the work of Reinking and Bradley in their understanding of Formative Design.

Overall the goal of research should not be fidelity of models but forkability to local contexts. We need interventions centered in the community that utilize inclusive methodologies that allow for iteration.


Distributed Knowledge

I also challenge you to rethink our definition of memory and cognition. In our Western traditions we have placed great emphasis on the self. Yet what if knowledge does not reside inside my brain. What if my memories are situated in the interstices between us, our environment, and our communities?

As the web explodes in size our external knowledge storage tools grow in vast size and complexities. Each of you in your pocket has more computing technology than humankind first took to the moon. As China prepares for the next moon landing I challenge us to rely on the networks that distribute knowledge across the globe.

Networked Technologies

It took the book 800 years to spread across the globe. Moveable print emerged in both China and Europe. Still in almost a millennia literacy reached only a fraction of the world’s population. In contrast the web has spread to a billion people in just under thirty years. A billion people, and in the next decade another billion will come online. No technology for reading and writing as spread with such speed.

We must take advantage of this opportunity while also protecting the way we read, write, and participate from emerging threats. Large multinational corporation suck up our data and sell it to the highest bidder. If we are not careful a new digital colonialism will emerge that will repeat the errors of our past. We must fight for a future in the world of Big Data where we empower people through privacy. You should control your data rather than handing it over to the Google’s and Facebooks of the world.

Improving our Communities

Let’s use Big Data to Build a better tomorrow not just focus on the bottom line. Like community engaged scholarship digitally engaged scholars serve the greater good. Let us use Big Data to not simply understand the past but to light a beacon on where we should head next.

Now let’s look at a few examples of where Big Data can be applied in educational settings and then you folks, as experts in your respective fields can help me help the world. Second half of the talk is here.

3 responses on “Big Impact with Big Data: Towards a New Research Design”


  • Greg McVerry
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