Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Driven Crazy with Data??

Most everyone would agree that the use of statistical data within the business world is commonplace and necessary in order to make appropriate business decisions in the an objective manner. A well-established business without sound financial data would cause most business analysts to raise their eyebrows about the viability of such a business. But, the use of statistical data within the confines of personal life, until recent years, has been rare.

Gary Wolf's article "The Data Driven Life" provides several examples of how the compilation of personal statistical data has changed some individual lives and has begun to change modern culture. One example is the mobile telephone, which is a small but tremendously powerful personal computing device with the capability to stay connected, but also with the ability to surf the web, to collect personal data, and much more. Another example is the personal accelerometer-based tracking system developed by Ken Fyfe. This device has been purchased by Adidas and Polar for use in sports watches to track various types of data related to one's personal physical fitness.

What are the implications of such data driven devices and lifestyles in the area of education? For me, the first implication is that educators cannot live in their own educational "bubble" and ignore the impact of such devices on today's kids. I teach in an urban school with a relatively low standard of living compared to the standard of living in the surrounding school districts. However, a significant percentage of my students could not imagine living without their cell phone and school policy has been changed to address the use of electronic devices within the school. (As a side note, even in my church, we as a congregation have been asked to turn off our cell phones during the service!)

One simple way for a math teacher to integrate this into a lesson is to provide a word problem which requires the students to compare various cell phone plans and determine which plan is best for them. Which plan is best if they do nothing but send text messages? Which is best for a family of four? Which is best for a family that has moved here from New York and uses their cell phone to regularly talk with their relatives in New York City? Suddenly, the world of mathematics becomes relevant for a high school kid!

There are also many opportunities to retrieve some of this personal statistical data and use it for graphing purposes and to draw conclusions based on the results. And it would not be difficult to create an extended exercise which asks the students to speculate about an area where the use of such personal devices would be beneficial.

The bottom line is that modern technology has made self-tracking - which was once the domain of the geekiest of humans - relatively normal. Wolf's article sums it up: "People are not assembly lines. We cannot be tuned to a known standard, because a universal standard for human experience does not exist." However, as Wolf also states, self-tracking through personal devices does make self-discovery much easier to do. And educators would be wise to integrate these devices into their classroom discussions on a regular basis.

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