Getting schooled in the 'noise': learning about learning using big data

Brits notoriously love bureaucracy, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the UK is a world leader in administrative data. With the digital era heralding a data revolution unlike anything in human history, education researchers such as Anna Vignoles are in a unique position to take advantage of this country’s data deluge.

According to the January 2013 School Census, 8.2 million boys and girls trudged back to 24,328 schools across England after the Christmas holidays. Some are immigrants, some royalty. Some are Catholic, some Sikh, some Jewish. Some go to private schools. Some need free school meals.
In the classroom, they are taught English, maths and science – as well as everything from the Reformation to colouring in. Their attainment levels are regularly predicted and monitored with varying degrees of accuracy – some will get straight As; some will get excluded. Most will fall somewhere in between.

And all of this information will be recorded, adding to the increasingly vast statistical reservoir of data as half a million kids complete the school system every year. Technology has allowed us to build information sets of unprecedented size and complexity, and this ocean of administrative info is the emerging coalface of education research in the era of ‘big data’.

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