We’ve been reporting on a Pearson partnership with Save the Children to improve learning for the children of Syrian refugees currently living in Jordan. (“Improving Learning for the Children of Syrian Refugees” and “Why Education is as Important as Shelter, Food, and Water in Emergencies.”) Today, the story of a U.S.-based Pearson researcher who participated in the project and the many questions her seven-year-old daughter asked both before and after the trip.read more
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The first high-profile debates (for a Senate seat) were held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858.
Over seven debates, the candidates alternately gave a one-hour opening statement.
The opponent would then speak for an hour-and-a-half—before ceding the floor to his opponent, who finished the debate with a 30-minute reply.
(Lincoln would go on to defeat Douglas in the *1860* presidential election.)read more
“Are you using technology to consume? Or are you using technology to create?”read more
Pamela Culbertson is a Pearson employee and a GED graduate. As Pamela says, earning her GED helped her achieve the life she dreamed of for her family. Here, she shares her GED story.read more
Our CEO John Fallon could probably have delivered a commencement speech at any number of colleges or universities. But in 2015, he proved to the education world that Pearson is serious about delivering the tools for education in the places where it matters most. This year, John Fallon joined over 300 hard-working and motivated Texas Southmost College graduates at their graduation, just a mile from the Mexican border. He shared words of wisdom, encouragement, and let TSC know how proud Pearson is of their accomplishments. Congratulations to the graduating class of Texas Southmost College! "Go Scorpions, sting 'em hard!" (Click on the video below to hear what John told this great group of graduates.)read more
Today, I had the opportunity to address Pearson shareholders in an open forum, as we do each year at our Annual General Meeting, and to remind people about what Pearson is, and what it is that we stand for. Here is what I told them:
I am very proud of our 40,000 colleagues all over world - who together put in a competitive performance right across Pearson. This performance is true of our Education business, the FT - with total circulation growing 10% year on year to a new high of 720,000 where digital now represents 70% of FT. And I’m also proud of Penguin Random House – the world’s first truly global digital book publishing company. Three years ago, we took a hard decision to merge Penguin with Random House as we thought it was the best way to support Penguin’s enduring commercial and creative success. Now two years on, we are seeing record performance and great success, as evidenced by our publishing, in at least one major market, each of last year’s Booker Prize short list. We are well placed to sustain our strong competitive performance this year and beyond.
We announced today our first quarter trading update - where we met expectations with headline sales up 5%. More importantly, we are making record levels of investment in the next generation of new products and services. As we do so, we aim to put the idea of placing the learner first - we serve them and they are at heart of every single thing we do. But before you hear any more from me, you should listen to one of those learners. So, that’s Mohamed’s story. His success is, of course, primarily due to his own talent, commitment and hard work. It also reflects well on his teachers, family and friends. Mohamed’s video, as well as the case studies in our Annual Report, are all examples of our work to tackle the most important challenges in the world - equipping global citizens with 21st century skills needed to survive in the workplace and life.
The greater our impact in improving access to good quality education and translating that into better outcomes for more people, the more quickly we can create a faster growing, more sustainable and profitable company. Access, inputs and outcomes are hallmarks of a successful company - efficacy is a hallmark of everything we do - becoming a stronger company, bigger, better and achieving better financial returns. We’re becoming a simpler, leaner company. We’ve halved global warehouse capacity, reduced systems and invested more in digital products and services.
We’re excited about the Pearson System of Courses – products like PSoC combine new technology with great teaching to help many more student do well and go on to succeed in their lives - combining depth and breadth of learning, which is engaging and empowering for both students and teachers. Like any innovation there are always difficulties - and in a school environment not everything works perfectly first time - but these are brilliant products and we are determined to see it through. We also care about Pearson’s culture, although none would argue that it has been a bruising time for our colleagues - we’ve cut 5,000 roles - mainly in print or mature markets - whilst we’ve added new roles in tech, efficacy, education, research and fast growing markets.
Our values - to be brave, imaginative, and decent - have been tested, but ultimately they’ve been reaffirmed and strengthened – and we are working hard to reward our people. And now we’ve added a fourth value - accountability - highlighting our commitment to a simple and incredibly powerful idea – that every product we sell can be measured and judged by social impact. We are accountable for the outcomes we help people to achieve. And we will be transparent on how we report on our progress.
There are few things in life more important than education. Our commitment to accountability extends to greater willingness to engage in the public debate. We are engaging with students, teachers, parents and all those who care about education around the world. That’s why we’ve led a public debate around higher standards in the UK. It is why we are engaging directly with parents, and students – as well as teachers - in America. It drives our commitment to report publicly on our progress on efficacy. It explains the very exciting new partnership we’ve formed with Save The Children to support education in Syrian refugee camps. And it is why we are encouraging all 40,000 Pearson colleagues to volunteer in our local communities.
Not everyone will agree with us. And we’ll make some mistakes along the way. But we’ll always strive to do better – and to sustain the support and trust of those we work with every day. As we do this work - some folk may question whether a sense of social purpose and a profit motive can go hand in hand. We think that what makes Pearson an incredibly special company is that they always go hand in hand. The profit we make is the by-product of making a useful and meaningful addition to society and few things are more important than empowering far more people to progress through learning. This should make Pearson a higher returning company to shareholders and communities we serve for many years to come.
Now, I was going to end there, but I received a letter as I arrived at the AGM this morning, and I want to respond to it directly. I want to tell you about my dad. When he trained as a teacher in the late 1940s, he felt his career choice was as highly valued in society as, for example, being a doctor or accountant. When he retired, it was a cause of some sadness that he felt the status of teachers had declined not just in pay, but also in the professional respect in which they were held. He lived long enough to see that with the support of education secretaries from both the right and left - David Blunkett and Ken Baker notably - the professional standing of teachers is starting to recover - but there is still a long way to go. We need to do more still. This is something I personally feel strongly about and it’s why we sponsor the Pearson Teaching Awards every year - and why 15,000 of our employees started as a teacher themselves, and why many more like me have deep family connections in education. You can be under no doubt that everyone in this company has greatest respect for the teaching profession.
In that spirit - let’s also make a few things clear. As an exam board here in the UK and a testing organization in America, we have a responsibility to every student, and to every teacher, to ensure that the exams, and the tests they take are fair – and it is demonstrably not fair if some students have seen the questions online before they even take the exam. We do think assessments – or exams – are important, to give parents reassurance that their kids are on track to do well – and, if not, the confidence that something is being done about it. They are also really important for universities and employers. We do want fewer, smarter, better exams – or assessments – and we do think they should be just one measure of progress as part of a wider framework. We do believe in higher standards – and that teachers need to be given the time and support to adjust to those standards. Most of all, I publicly and enthusiastically support free public education for every child around the world. Yet the reality today is this: 65 million primary school-aged children don’t get to go to school, hundreds of millions of secondary school aged kids don’t get to school - and many millions more are still largely illiterate and innumerate.
If this was health or hunger, we would be talking about an urgent humanitarian crisis. In education it takes a generation for the true social cost to be borne out, so unfortunately the alarm bells don’t ring as loudly. Faced with that challenge and reality, we as a leading learning company have a responsibility to work with every part of society, government, local authorities, aid-agencies, charities, and, yes, local entrepreneurs and private companies as well - to give as many people as we can the chance of a better education and a better start in life.
How do you educate refugee children in places with a shortage of trained teachers, a lack of resources, and where school records have been lost? In the last four years, across the Middle East and North Africa, millions of young refugees have fled from their homes. And an entire generation, millions of children, are at risk of growing up without an education.
The threat of an educational void is becoming abundantly clear in places like Syria. More than 2.3 million children inside the country are not in school. Of the hundreds of thousands who have fled, nearly half are not receiving any education at all. In Lebanon, there are more school age refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools, and only one in five Syrian children are enrolled. Sadly, it’s a similar situation in Jordan and Iraq. Aid needs to reflect the new, longer-term reality of conflicts, and should include the means for providing access to education to those who have had to migrate and are forced to establish a new life.
Abu Mohamad, a Syrian refugee, recently told his story to CNN about small businesses in refugee camps. He started a pizza delivery service for other refugees and aid workers living in his camp. “I couldn’t sit and wait for the situation to change,” he said. “We always want more for our families.” But not everyone is an entrepreneur, particularly young children – many of whom lack access to basic education. Not everyone has the necessary tools at their disposal.
Last month, the UK pledged £100m to help support Syrian refugees with food, medical care and relief items. The UK Department for International Development has committed more than £800m – the UK’s largest ever response to any humanitarian crisis. And USAID, between 2012 and 2015, donated $570m to help Syrian refugees. This is all much-needed support. Given the reality of this crisis, we need to supplement these efforts. More governments, NGOs and companies can play a significant role in improving access to education in these settings.
Much as food aid often includes basic essentials needed for survival, education assistance needs to be rapidly deployable but without compromising on quality. Refugee camps and host communities need easily accessible materials and low- or no-cost tools for education that work in challenging settings. Some organisations are already leading the way.
UNICEF helped more than 375,000 Syrian children last year access formal and informal education through school construction and rehabilitation, teacher training and provision of school materials for teachers and students. In Jordan, staff and volunteers from Save the Children are creating specialised teacher training and support programs for those operating in conflict regions. These sessions will equip teachers with an entirely new way of approaching lesson plans, homework and grading. Save the Children has also developed a database of emergency personnel for education. These experts can be dispatched on short notice to areas affected by emergencies.
All this can be done without traditional classroom tools. Teachers work from condensed, modified curriculum, written to be delivered quickly and affordably. Mobile-delivered teaching resources can be vital when communication and normal delivery methods are limited by circumstance. And there is a need for solutions for grading tests where no national marking system exists and where students lack school records.
Education is often among the first casualties of sustained conflict, and all too often, the international focus simply moves on to the next conflict, leaving a massive skills and knowledge void in its wake. Children out of school are vulnerable to the influence of extremism, a growing threat in the region, criminal behaviour and other forms of exploitation. Many host governments are stretched to the limits in terms of their ability to absorb the influx of refugee students into schools in already-struggling education systems.
How can we make a difference? Businesses must prioritise the social impact we stand to make as major players in the global economy, and we must do so with a view to the future.
In 2015, the UN is examining where focus must go following the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, and education will surely be among the priorities for the new Sustainable Development Goals. There is work to be done. I encourage all businesses to examine their core competencies—whether in logistics, product design, communications or whatever their area of expertise – that can be applied or offered to refugee communities to drive educational improvements at little or no cost.
The late professor C.K. Prahalad said: “The big challenge for humanity is to get everybody, not just the elite, to participate in globalisation and avail its benefits.” The shift in our thinking I’ve described around moving from a short to a long-term view of how we assist those in need through education, and what Prahalad envisioned, is about inclusion, it is about fairness and it is about allowing everyone, not just those at the top of the pyramid, to have a chance.
(Click here to read about our own partnership with Save the Children, and join the conversation on Twitter at #EveryChildLearning.)
Amidst all the noise in American education, something interesting is happening across the country: students from grades three to eleven are taking new assessments aligned to higher standards and it’s going well. That’s not to say the work is complete. It's not easy to implement new assessments and there is still a tremendous amount we can learn and improve upon as we move through the school year.
The shift to higher standards sets higher aspirations for all students involved. It demands new ways to determine whether our students are learning. These changes include digital testing methods that score tests faster and more accurately, and at lower costs to schools, along with multi-step questions that measure critical thinking, reasoning and the ability to apply skills and knowledge in reading, writing and mathematics. Students now write responses based on texts – fiction and non-fiction - and multimedia components to support their point of view.
They are also solving complex math problems that require reasoning and address real-world situations. These skills are critically important for students in college and in the workplace. Because of these new kinds of questions, students will receive a better indication of their progress with detailed analysis of their answers to each test question.
Teachers will have data specific to each student that is useful and timely, as the assessment is built with them in mind. For example, Joanie Funderburk, a math teacher for 25 years, was deeply involved in developing the assessment, helping ensure that students would be given appropriate feedback. Funderburk, with 25 other Colorado educators, met twice a year together with other teachers to ask questions, give input, and provide feedback to shape what was important to each state. She noted, “PARCC* is built upon an evidence-based design: starting with the standards, identifying the specific skills and knowledge the standards require, then designing tests and items that align to those knowledge and skills.”
Parents are also able to be more involved, in supporting their children and their local teachers. They can access more information about their child and have an accurate gauge on progress. And employers benefit from a workforce ready for the jobs of a dynamically different economy.
Parents are however rightfully concerned about the pressures on children. We need fewer, better tests. And these richer assessments that capture student performance and produce more and better feedback, should reduce the need for benchmark, or “drill” style tests, that have exploded in use over the last decade. These tests should also be replaced by new platforms that enable teachers to observe more naturally and effectively how their students are doing. These platforms allow teachers to make small, incremental adjustments based on the individual needs of each student through the school year rather than waiting until the end of the year, when it is much harder to recover lost ground. Parents should also be reassured that, implemented properly, it means less rote style “teaching to the test”. The best way to prepare students to perform well on these new assessments is for teachers to focus completely on the rich, deeper curriculum demanded by these new, higher standards.
Teachers should also be given time to adapt the curriculum for students, and their own teaching style. It’s one thing if you start in third grade, with a new class and a new way of teaching math. But if you’re in eighth or ninth grade, it’s understandably harder for teachers, and students, to adapt. Just as each student is different, so is each school district, and the pace of change will vary from state to state. It is vital that teachers are given the time, space and encouragement to work with, and learn from, each other through what would be a big change in practice for any profession.
Some specific issues color perceptions and hamper progress. In New Jersey this week, for example, a student posted on Twitter details of a test question he had just taken but that other students had yet to take. It is only one question, but it is still unfair to students and jeopardizes the integrity of the test. Pearson found the tweet through a monitoring service that is part of our contractual obligation to make sure test information doesn’t leak. It looks for keywords, directly relevant to the test, not the individuals taking it. We immediately alerted our customer, the New Jersey Department of Education, who contacted the student to remove the tweet.
While this is a standard procedure and aligns with high stakes testing best practice, parents were understandably concerned about their children’s privacy. Pearson does not monitor individual students and never views information that is not public. But as a parent, I would never want my child to compete against other students who had an unfair advantage due to leaked information.
As close as I am to the issues, I’m learning more every day. What’s important is to focus our attention on issues that really impact students – like ensuring students are prepared for college and take fewer, fairer, smarter tests. Creating smarter tests that better serve students will require the active cooperation of everyone who has a stake in our shared future.
*PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure the progress of students towards college and career readiness.
Transforming anything needs bold people to kickstart it. And if you’re in any doubt that education needs some bold transformation, then you don’t have to search too far for the evidence. For example, the 101 million children not in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the 93 million women there classed as illiterate. Or how about the 14% of US adults who cannot read. In its latest report the OECD stated that “no country, no region in the world can claim in 2015 that all of its youth have attained at least a minimum proficiency in foundation skills.”
We can all play our part in kickstarting a transformation in education, because we all own the culture of education. Teachers, parents, students, governments, businesses… we all define the culture that sets the standards. The ‘right’ culture is one of the key explanations for the dominance of South-East Asian nations at the top of most education league tables; that believes that every learner can succeed rather than deciding at the outset that some are smart and others not; that as well as ambitious expectations has clear goalposts, high levels of community involvement, and a strong sense of accountability among all stakeholders. It’s what Hwy-Chang Moon, a dean of Seoul National University, calls “a mentality of the first-tier.”
Our education kickstarters are the people social scientists would refer to as the ‘innovators’, those on the left of the bell curve of adoption.
They are the minority that, if all goes well, morph into the majority. And to their far right, the laggards, the chorus of cynics saying “What’s all this nonsense of new ideas and technology!”. They will try to derail you, mud wrestle you into distractions by asking how you’re going to get ‘buy-in’ and ‘take people with you’. But you don’t win hearts and minds and then make the change; you make the change, and the hearts and minds will follow.
In an increasingly globalised world, a bold vision doesn’t just have to stand up to where you’re coming from, but where everyone else in the world is at. I was reminded of this on one of my visits to Punjab, Pakistan, where I have been working with the Chief Minister for a number of years (unrelated to my role at Pearson.) A government official was very proud to tell me how only 5% of kids cheated in exams, which was a huge improvement. I reminded him that in England the figure is 0.014%, 400 times better.
Obama called it “the audacity of hope”, but hope alone is not enough. Transformation is much more forensic than that. It needs a plan that spells out that this is where we are now, and this is where we can get to, and this is who’s going to need to do what, when, and how. And this is how we’ll know if it’s working.
Data will let you do that last one. And the closer to real-time that data is, the better. The world moves far too fast for data to have a shelf life. In Punjab we went from having no insight into what was happening in schools, to now collecting data against 16 indicators from 55,000 schools every month. Additionally we collect data from 25,000 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Province of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, prone to terrible winters, earthquakes, and terrorism. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.
The data will indicate where the plan is veering off, so you can decide how to get it back on track. Dig deeper, disaggregate it, find the hotspots where it’s working, where it isn’t, do more of the former and stop doing the latter.
When you marry all this together - the bold vision, the clear plan, the execution of that plan, and the real-time data that tells you how to adjust - that’s when you do real transformation. It’s how you move from small steps of incremental change to giant leaps of extraordinary outcomes.
What might an education transformation look like when it’s done? (Of course, it’s never ‘done’!) A school where technology is ubiquitous, classrooms have become wide open spaces, data is helping identify struggling students, progress is measured by grit and resilience as much as English and maths, and Artificial Intelligence diagnoses when a learner is bored, or frustrated, or confused before performing, with the help of an outstanding teacher, a well-designed intervention.
None of this is to say that education transformation isn’t already happening. Some countries are on the path - Poland and Singapore to name just two; and individuals too, such as, CP Viswanath, founder of Karadi Path. From small beginnings in the slums of India the company now has 800 English language schools across the country. Led by where the evidence has taken them, their students outperform ‘traditional’ classrooms by between 20-60%.
Last week I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, where the major challenges facing the world - extreme poverty, civil rights, clean energy, gender equality, affordable healthcare were examined. We don’t have a hope of transforming any of these if we don’t first transform education.
Michael Barber is our chief education advisor. Connect with him on Twitter - @MichaelBarber9read more
This article is a response to a piece we published on this blog by Dr Ben Williamson of Stirling University, in which he explores an “emerging criticism of Pearson among education researchers”. In his piece Dr Williamson refers to two activities of Pearson: the Centre for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning and The Learning Curve. Dr. Kristen DiCerbo and Dr. John Behrens of the Centre jointly author the response on the former; and Dominic Collard responds on the points made in relation to The Learning Curve.
We would like to thank Dr. Williamson for his interest in Pearson’s use of data and our research efforts. We believe strongly that open dialogue is key to the world making progress in education.
Dr. Kristen DiCerbo - (Centre for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning.)
As one of the questions Dr. Williamson asks is “Who at Pearson is collecting the data, designing the algorithms to analyse it, and checking the analytics for their accuracy?”, I’d thought that’d be a good place to begin. I have written this with my colleague John Behrens, who is referenced with me in Dr. Williamson’s article.
One of our great delights in our years at Pearson is how much the company values our varied backgrounds as social science researcher-practitioners and supports our involvement in public and academic discourse. My Ph.D. is in educational psychology; after completing a school psychology program and becoming a certified psychologist, I worked in schools as a school psychologist and continued on to a research career that included observing classroom instruction around the world. John was a social worker before obtaining degrees in special education and educational psychology with cognates in instruction and cognition, as well as measurement, statistics & methodological studies. He was a professor for 10 years and gave up tenure to work in contexts in which he could apply learning and analytics at scale.
So when Dr. Williamson writes that Pearson is, “beginning to challenge the existing authority of social scientists and psychologists to study, understand and produce new knowledge about key aspects of education such as assessment and learning.” we find this a surprising conclusion, since we in fact identify as social scientists and psychologists (and technologists and educators).
Like Dr. Williamson, we believe the digital revolution is a remarkable event in the evolution of human interaction. We study this phenomenon and participate in academic communities to reflect, discuss, and have broad interchanges about these societal changes. We, and other colleagues at Pearson, publish papers, present in open scientific forums, and provide ongoing community service through external advisory boards, editorial boards, and support of journals with peer review, among other activities. We support graduate student training with internships and mentoring and have had a broad range of collaborations with academics in fields related to our interests. This provides future scholars with unique access to both the processes and challenges of research and innovation in business environments.
We are, however, not just researchers, but practitioners as well. A common concern for researchers and sponsors of research is the lack of mechanism for translating learning science research into practice. An embedded research group is one way to make that happen. We feel privileged to work side by side with product design and engineering teams to help build the most efficacious products and services we can for our customers. This means not just studying corporations and other loci of innovation and development, but working within them. We believe that we have a responsibility as stewards of educational data to conduct research to further our understanding of both learning and data methodology. There is no reason this activity should be the sole province of academia or organizations based on their tax status. Education is a complex endeavor and as Dr. Williamson points out, requires many actors and perspectives.
Our theory of action
So, what exactly is Pearson trying to accomplish with the funding of data and learning science research? Dr. Williamson asks, “why is Pearson investing in such a massive effort to conduct educational data science?” Our answer is simple: we want to serve students, parents, teachers, and administrators in the best possible way, by considering all the tools that can be fruitfully brought to bear.
Like our goal, our theory of action is simple: Better data analysis → better understanding of students’ attributes/curriculum/learning trajectories → better instructional decisions → improved learner outcomes.
By using better data analysis techniques applied to data captured from better designed activities, we hope to build more complete and accurate models of learners’ knowledge, skills, and attributes that will provide better information to teachers and learners and provide systems that are relevant to each student’s individual proficiency levels, interests, and current states. As we discussed in Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education (DiCerbo & Behrens, 2014), our starting point on this journey is not that we should make the natural activity of society more digital, but rather that, as it is already happening organically, the educational community needs to understand the opportunities and challenges that emerge. If students are working in digital systems throughout the year, we think it essential to give them feedback along the way, and irresponsible to ignore the opportunity. Indeed it is our hope that increased awareness about learner progress throughout the year can change the balance of need for the much-maligned annual test. We are proud to work at a company that emphasizes learner outcomes (see our efficacy efforts for more on this) and whose results can be accepted or rejected by the consumer.
Our belief system
Dr. Williamson states that one of his main concerns is that our work is, “premised on a kind of big data belief system which assumes that massive quantities of data can reveal truthful and meaningful patterns about the reality they’re taken from—that the data can speak for themselves free of human bias.” While this is a common characterization of modern analytics writ large, a simple review of our writing suggests a different stance. Way back in 1997 John wrote (with Mary Lee Smith in the Handbook of Educational Psychology) that data analysis must be understood in the “context of history, the context of application, the context of practice and the context of alternative methods” (p. 945). More recently he advised the Learning Analytics community that “The successful learning analyst will avoid two common errors: Failure to understand the context and failure to become intimately familiar with the data.” (Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference, 2013).
In the Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education paper, the following figure is one of our favorites:
In the paper, we write, “Data is only a representation or symbol of what happens in the world. In most contexts, the goal of data collection and analysis is to provide insight and inform decisions. Accordingly, there is a long chain of reasoning that needs to be considered.” We recognize that data is a representation of the world and like all representations, it is an imperfect system which will not perfectly capture the detail of the world. We also believe that all of the activity coming after that (analysis, interpretation, etc.) is a human endeavor, involving all the benefits and challenges that implies. This view of data analysis as human process that requires understanding of meaningfulness of context and social negotiation is, in fact, a consistent theme over our careers as reflected in such works as Why People Are the Real Power Behind Big Data, Technological Implications for Assessment Ecosystems, and Activity Theory and Assessment Theory in the Design and Understanding of the Packet Tracer Ecosystem. Finally, interested readers can read more about how to avoid being “fooled by data” in our writings on exploratory data analysis (here, here, and here, for example).
We hope that Dr. Williamson is correct that we are well-positioned to create new knowledge and methods. Pearson is a dynamic and evolving company working in a dynamic and evolving set of social, technological, political and economic contexts. We are energized by the opportunity to serve the global community of learners and educators, and to work at the intersection of academic exploration and end-user service.
Dr. Williamson asks about what our work looks like “from the inside.” Given our experiences across a variety of research settings, we think he would be surprised to see how much the work we do looks just like work done in education research labs everywhere, with the added component that we are directly implementing our findings to impact the lives of learners. Just as with anyone else interested in what we do, we would be delighted to take him through our work in more detail.
The Learning Curve (Dominic Collard)
At Pearson, we believe that data helps unlock the secrets of learning. That alongside the know-how and experience of teachers and educators, data can reveal things that are invisible to the human eye and the human brain, and so help us all make better decisions.
It’s a belief that requires data to be not just robust, but also seen and used. The professional researcher may be comfortable navigating through labyrinths of numbers, but most of the rest of us are not. Teachers, parents, government officials… anyone interested in what is working well in education - most of us probably don’t have the time, the skills or the inclination to get really deep into the data.
The Learning Curve - essentially a collection of thousands of education data points collected from all over the world over the last 25 years - is one attempt to make data seen and used by more people. We want people to discover their own conclusions and draw their own correlations between education inputs (ie spend, teacher salaries, class sizes) and education and socioeconomic outcomes (ie literacy levels, graduation rates, crime and unemployment.)
None of the data on The Learning Curve ‘belongs’ to Pearson. The Economist Intelligence Unit gathers it all for us, from sources such as the OECD, UNESCO, The World Bank and the International Labour Organisation, to name just a few. Dr Williamson is correct that the EIU is an independent business within The Economist Group, which until recently Pearson had a stake. And it is equally true that few other organisations could manage the systematic and regular collection of the wide range of data that The Learning Curve demands.
All that data is then presented via a range of interactive visualisations, designed so the user is able to control the parameters of what they are seeing. For instance, you may like to know how the US and the UK compared in 2001 for public expenditure per pupil as a % of GDP. Or you may like to play that comparison out for all countries across 25 years. At a few touches of a button you can do both, and everything inbetween. Or, if you are confident using large spreadsheets of data, then we also give you the option of downloading everything to an Excel file. The Learning Curve has been specifically designed so nobody has to second guess what the user wants to understand, or the method they want to discover it.
There is another section of the site - the Index - which I suspect Dr Williamson is referring to when he argues it “limits what kinds of analyses can be done and what can be said about the data because it has been designed to prioritize the measurement and comparison of ‘effective’ education…”. The Index is an attempt to rank countries based on their overall education performance - a global league table of education standards. We think the way we have calculated where countries come stands up to scrutiny (and we provide a full explanation of the methodology on the site so people can judge for themselves) - but we also know that you could legitimately calculate this in many, many other ways. We have never suggested the Index should be seen as the final say, and have always gone to great lengths to explain that it is just one interpretation, whose value reduces the more you read it in isolation. Pearson would absolutely agree with Dr Williamson on the importance of understanding “...social and cultural context, emotional complexity, and the qualitative dimensions of human relations” in education systems. The truth is though, for now these things are much harder to measure and collect data on. That’s why we see The Learning Curve as the start of the conversation, not the end.
There is one more point I would like to make about The Learning Curve, that I appreciate is not brought up by Dr Williamson. It is free. As long as you have an internet connection and a device to access it, you can spend as long as you like exploring what it has to reveal; ¾ million people worldwide have done so.
The Learning Curve is not a modest undertaking for Pearson - in terms of cost or time - and there is no immediate revenue incentive for us either. Of course, we hope that it helps our reputation and so our ability to take part in the conversations that shape education. And, yes, that should then help our commercial performance in the long-run. But the absolute opposite will be the case if The Learning Curve somehow doesn’t stand up; if somehow we are using it to steer people away from the evidence and towards something we’d wish they’d believe, if only it were true.
Like my colleagues Kristen and John, I’d be delighted to spend time with Dr Williamson to show him behind the scenes of The Learning Curve , and of course get his view on where we might be able to improve things.read more
Earlier this month we came across an article in the European Educational Research Journal analysing Pearson's role in education research. In the spirit of open dialogue, we invited the author, Dr Ben Williamson of Stirling University in the UK, to summarise his points, which he does in the following article. You can also read our response to this piece.
Pearson has recently become the subject of several major research studies. These studies have sounded a largely critical note about Pearson, particularly around its business ambitions and its political influences. One of the reasons for the emerging criticism of Pearson among education researchers, I believe, is that Pearson is beginning to challenge the existing authority of social scientists and psychologists to study, understand and produce new knowledge about key aspects of education such as assessment and learning.
I recently published a research article in the European Educational Research Journal on what I described as Pearson’s ‘digital methods.’ The research tried to identify some of the many research methods that Pearson is using to make sense of education, and specifically looked into the statistical methods and the data visualization techniques behind Pearson’s The Learning Curve, and the data science methods used by Pearson’s Centre for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning.
My argument was that Pearson is becoming a methodological gatekeeper with the capacity to carry out new forms of educational research using large-scale datasets, big data and data science methods. These are approaches that many educational researchers working in higher education institutions are ill-equipped to carry out, which puts Pearson at an advantage as more and more digital data is produced about learning and assessment. As a result, a research centre like Pearson’s Centre for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning looks from the outside like a seriously-resourced laboratory for educational research and knowledge production that challenges the existing methods, knowledge and theories of educational sociology, philosophy and psychology.
For example, John Behrens, the director of the Centre for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning has claimed that data-mining ‘the billions of bits of digital data generated by students’ interactions with online lessons as well as everyday digital activities’ will challenge current theoretical frameworks in education, as ‘new forms of data and experience will create a theory gap between the dramatic increase in data-based results and the theory base to integrate them.’ In a report co-authored with Kristen DiCerbo (also of Pearson), it is noted that ‘we need further research that brings together learning science and data science to create the new knowledge, processes, and systems this vision requires.’
The ambition to devise new data science methods together with learning science approaches, and then to use these to identify a ‘theory gap’ could cause disquiet among some education researchers. Of course, it’s intellectually healthy to challenge old theories, otherwise we would still be trying to construct behaviourist ‘teaching machines’ like those of Sidney Pressey a century ago. But for a big company like Pearson to position itself in a way which suggests it has the capacity to address the theory gap using its massive data analytic capacity could be seen as a little troubling. Here are two reasons.
First, Pearson promotes The Learning Curve as an ‘open and living database’ that will encourage ‘evidence-informed education policy’ and help ‘identify the common elements of effective education.’ What is less clear to the user is that The Learning Curve was constructed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (until recently owned by Pearson) whose expertise is in economic forecasting, business intelligence and national comparison. Although The Learning Curve invites the user to engage with the data through an interactive visual interface, ultimately it limits what kinds of analyses can be done and what can be said about the data because it has been designed to prioritize the measurement and comparison of ‘effective’ education according to the methodological preferences of the EIU. What Pearson says is ‘effective education,’ or rather what the EIU measures as ‘effective education,’ or indeed, what data can be included about ‘effective education’ in The Learning Curve in the first place, all point towards its limitations as an impartial, neutral and objective visual and numerical representation of education around the world. The methodological appendix to The Learning Curve even admits as much, stating that ‘because indexes aggregate different data sets on different scales from different sources, building them invariably requires making a number of subjective decisions.’ There is subjectivity to the objectivity offered by The Learning Curve.
For me as an education researcher with a sociological tendency, this makes me ask questions about the ‘who’ behind the data—who selected it, from where, what did they do to prepare it for inclusion, how did they clean it up, how has it been tweaked, how has it been presented, and, crucially, how much interpretation has been done by the designers of The Learning Curve in advance of its presentation on the site?
Second, Pearson’s Centre for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning is premised on a kind of big data belief system which assumes that massive quantities of data can reveal truthful and meaningful patterns about the reality they’re taken from—that the data can speak for themselves free of human bias. Yet as many researchers of big data have pointed out, data do not exist naturally as a ‘raw’ or truthful representation of an underlying reality—they have to be brought into being through human, social, methodological and technical practices, and are constantly reshaped as they move between human actors, software platforms, and institutional structures and settings, all framed by social, political and economic contexts. Again, human hands, minds and biases, as well as technical platforms and business plans, can all affect the ways in which data are collected, calculated, and communicated back out into the world.
These examples are significant because Pearson is claiming to be opening up a ‘theory gap’ in our understanding of effective education and learning, and at the same time working on new digital methods and data scientific approaches that might produce new knowledge to fill that gap. As a global educational media company and increasingly a policy influencer, it is then very well positioned to use the insights it gains from the data to come up with new kinds of solutions in the shape of new software products for schools, or even new policy solutions for governments.
You can see why some critically-minded education researchers would be sceptical—Pearson’s identifying problems for which it might sell solutions! Others might point out that numerical data (no matter how big) and its visualization as heatmaps, time series graphs and so on are only part of the educational picture—that they don’t capture social and cultural context, emotional complexity, and the qualitative dimensions of human relations in classrooms.
My own critique is different. Instead, my emphasis is on acknowledging the human and social practices that go into the generation of data at Pearson as a new source of knowledge production, and on asking questions about how its new digital methods and data scientific approaches might be challenging the long history of educational theorizing, empirical investigation, and knowledge production. Pearson is positioning itself as a major source of methodological expertise in educational research, driven by ambitions to reconceptualise education and learning, and it has significant global power to influence policymakers, politicians and practitioners alike that its data provides the numerical and visualized facts that can fill the theory gap.
There is an exciting line of sociological inquiry into the ‘social life of methods’ to draw from here which treats research methods as the object of social scientific inquiry. Those of us trying to understand Pearson from the outside know little about the ‘social life’ of the methodological work being done inside Pearson’s research centres.
The necessary response, I think, is for education researchers to try to understand the ‘who,’ the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of Pearson’s current digital ambitions. Who at Pearson is collecting the data, designing the algorithms to analyse it, and checking the analytics for their accuracy—and according to whose policy ambitions, business plans and personal objectives? How are the datasets that Pearson possesses selected, interpreted and presented, and how is the visualization of its data on platforms like The Learning Curve designed in such a way as to shape the possible interpretations that audiences can make? And why is Pearson investing in such a massive effort to conduct educational data science—to identify new market niches for itself, to displace higher education institutions, and to position itself as the dominant global centre of educational expertise and knowledge production?
Answering these questions may require researchers with a more critical set of methodologies and theories to engage in a dialogue with researchers within Pearson, and to understand Pearson from the inside as a new source of methodological expertise and knowledge production rather than criticising it from the outside as a commercial monster. There is an empirical gap in our understanding of how Pearson is approaching the theory gap in educational research.
Nothing like a new year for trying out a new look. But behind our new logo and splash of new colours for 2016, there's something fundamental that will never change about us - a belief that education has the power to change the world. We believe it because we see it happen, every day; the child lifted out of poverty, the adult able to read for the first time, the new job secured. These are the hallmarks of a world making progress. Here's how we're going to keep playing our part in the year ahead.read more