Powerful Learning Experiences at the Intersection of Big Data and Big Empathy

a visual conceptual representation of education data that has been made interoperable by a unifying center

“Keeping the soul in data is the great strength of the hybrid insights approach.”

Johannes Seemann

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and increased use of big data, learning and how we learn is being accelerated and changing at exponential rates. This is resulting in an increasingly automated world in which decisions are influenced by trends curated from massive data sets.

The role of an educator as empathy advocate has never been more important. Let me explain…

In an episode of the The Good Life Project podcast, Tom Kelley (Founder of IDEO) talked about design-thinking. Design-thinking is often used in businesses to “transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy.” In turn, big data is often used in the design-thinking process to help identify trends in human behaviors and interactions, so that the end product, solution or design is likely to fill a need of a particular population or group.

The design-thinking approach is being employed in schools across the country as a pedagogy for students and educators wanting to take a human-centered approach to problem-solving. I am a big proponent of the work IDEO is doing and of design-thinking in schools (see Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA). However, prior to listening to the podcast I grappled with the fact that when we start to also include big data – say when deciding what structures or supports go into place in the creation of a new school – the focus can shift away from the audience or who we are designing for and be more about the trends the data is showing us to be beneficial. In some instances, the result is an over generalization about groups of people or students and neglect of the community of students or needs.

Dr. Pierratt harps that without empathy and deep consideration and understanding of the user, we could easily just be “represent[ing] dominant assumptions” and miss out on serving those voices that are often left unheard. Empathy should be, and is, “at the heart of design.”

Emapthy.jpgSo how can we continue to check-in with ourselves when designing for, or in, schools and districts with big data? How can we continue to incorporate more use of big data, but consistently ask probing questions and unpack what we are finding?

Hybrid Insights Are Key

In the podcast, Kelley reminds fellow design-thinkers that in order to avoid my fear of big data being used without considering the students, to spend time seeking hybrid insights. Hybrid insights are formulated when you take big data, personify it and then use that insight or story to help develop your design, solution or product. It means going beyond a core set of personas and averages to really get to know specific users or people that you are designing for. Kelley addresses my previously mentioned caution and argues that yes, it is concerning, but that it isn’t really authentic and true design-thinking if you are not keeping empathy at the center and revealing hybrid insights.

In a Bloomberg Benchmark Podcast with authors Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider, they share their findings from studying money saving habits of over 200 families that live paycheck-to-paycheck. They used a mixed method approach, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data, and found that participants in the study saved their money in unconventional but intentional ways. Participants also all seemed to need a mix of flexibility and structure in their saving strategies and techniques. Morduch and Schneider share that if they just looked at the data and never interviewed the participants, they would’ve never found such valuable hybrid insights. Schneider shares that this ability to use both quantitative and qualitative information allows for deepening intuition and deepening of understanding (listen around the 11:00 minute mark for more).

In Hybrid Insights: Where the Quantitative Meets the Qualitative, Johannes Seemann of IDEO elaborates and seconds this idea:

“Integrating quantitative research methods with a qualitatively-driven design cycle is a powerful new approach that we have dubbed ‘hybrid insights’. By seamlessly integrating people’s real-life stories with hard market numbers, the hybrid insights approach helps strategists leverage the why as well as the what when making important decisions. We have found this to be a robust and powerful tool for design and innovation.”

Tom Vander Ark shares a similar idea in Want to Solve a Problem? Get Smart, Build a Dataset, Apply Smart Tools. He notes that the passion and cause is where you need to start. He writes, “There’s never been a better time to make a difference. The new lever is wrangling big datasets associated with a big problem and aiming smart tools at them to find or build big solutions.”

Tom and I chatted more specifically about design-thinking, the importance of empathy and the idea of hybrid insights. He shared the following, “I think there is empathy research involved in both problem finding and solution finding. In this inevitable future, we’ll be able to apply big data to individual learning by amassing huge data sets about individual learners. When we can use the power of relationship and the power of data to fully understand a student’s motivational profile and their knowledge/skill map, we should be able to unlock big gains in learning.”

The Educator Advantage

Educators, who are typically highly empathetic employees, have an advantage when it comes to developing hybrid insights and can bring needs to life for actual students. Not only have many educators become data pros in the era of accountability, but they have an acute understanding of humans and their behaviors. Big data can provide us general trends about student groups, such as “gifted, Hispanic male who qualifies for free lunch who may tend to x, y, z”, which leads us to a set of personas or archetypes. Organizations like Fidelis, who work primarily in HigherEd, have been using personas as a means to redesign learner experiences.

Archetypes are a great starting point, but can be dangerous if used without considering that they really are just that – archetypes and not the actual user. Educators can further bridge the connection and take it a step further so that there are meaningful, hybrid insights. Educators can truly make design decisions that are human-centered by using that big data trend, applying what they know about their individual community or group of students, factors that impact their daily lives and formulating a meaningful insight that can advance their practice or instruction to serve those students.

This killer combination gives educators a leg up. Sure, big data on scale is nothing in comparison to a class set of 26 math test scores, but the same skills of analyzing and exploring data to identify trends and develop informed instruction or strategies based off of what you find apply nonetheless.

   “Human-centered design aims to solve the needs of real people – not manufactured Personas.”

                                                                      – Johannes Seemann

However, many educators do not yet see the connection between their work and unpacking big data.

“That research doesn’t make sense applied in my classroom or community.”

This is a common point I hear from educators when it comes to research or big data trends and it is entirely fair. Not only are educators needing to focus on the data that is coming directly from within their own classrooms and students, but they are often given (this may be part of the problem) a research and data supported idea or tool to implement in their school but are the first to realize it doesn’t quite make sense for the students they serve. This often results in abandonment of paying attention to the research altogether.

Although I did not use design-thinking (or really big data for that matter), I experienced this divide when I was a classroom teacher. “Why isn’t this student getting a four on the End-of-Grade test if we put these strategies and interventions in place?” I saw students as numbers when I looked at data and as humans when I was teaching and in front of them. Even though I knew so much about each of my students individual needs, that valuable insight disappeared during data conversations and from being an essential part of the “student success” equation. I wish I had known more about design-thinking and hybrid insights.

All of this begs for more exploration, more digging and maybe even applying design-thinking to big data itself. It is clear to me that teachers are the empathy bridge that will connect big data to better student outcomes. I’d love to see more educators empowered to develop hybrid insights and start to better connect the fields of big data and classroom teaching.

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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