Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent
April, 13th 2012

By Michael D. King
Vice President, IBM Global Education

Education is the foundation of any country’s future. It provides a path to good jobs and higher earning power. It can also foster the cross-border, cross-cultural collaboration required to solve the most challenging problems of our time.

One hundred years after the U.S. education system first expanded and transformed to prepare children for a booming industrial economy, a new kind of economy based on services and knowledge-based systems is changing the education landscape again. If we want our children to achieve their potential — and realize the potential of a smarter planet — then school itself needs to get a lot smarter.

IBM has a long legacy in working to improve our school systems. In the mid-90s, then-CEO Lou Gerstner hosted the first of three National Education Summits as part of the company’s Reinventing Education program, which focused on public school reform. Two decades later, IBM is at the forefront of developing the deep analytics technologies that are poised to radically transform the way we approach education and the insight we have into each and every student.

Unfortunately schools and higher education systems today are straining under budget cuts, while the demand for students with specialized skills is on the rise. The problem is so serious that the U.S. Department of Education has allocated $5.3 billion for Race to the Top, a national competition to promote education reform strategies. One of its primary focus areas is building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices. Put simply, the idea is to use data to get closer to students to help solve problems.

System-wide improvements in education require big-picture thinking. A holistic, accurate vision starts with a clear understanding of each student and school. By capturing and conveying data, such as attendance, grades and enrollment in activities, schools gain a real-time perspective into how a student or school is doing, where intervention is needed, and learn from best practices being implemented at other schools.

Inspired by this idea of using data to get closer to students and solve problems, IBM is launching a new education platform together with Desire2Learn, a company that is providing learning environments to some of the world’s largest public school systems, including The New York City Department of Education.

In the past, IBM has introduced analytics solutions for education that focus on sifting through large quantities of data and providing intelligence at a systems level across institutions, districts and states. These big picture insights are valuable and can tell us a lot about student achievement and areas for improvement. But with Desire2Learn’s student and teacher focused learning platform, which offers analytics on a personal level, we can help teachers and students glean insights that apply specifically to them.  These combined qualities make this solution truly comprehensive in a way that has not been available to schools in the past.

It is amazing what kinds of improvements you can make schools when you take this transformational approach. In Hamilton County, Tenn., which includes the city of Chattanooga, administrators reduced the dropout rate by 25% by figuring out which students were at risk of leaving school. A key indicator turned out to be students who were two or three years older than normal for their grades. When those students were flagged, schools gave them extra attention and kept more of them in school.

When you put smart tools in the hands of students and teachers, there are almost no limits to the types of data which can be captured and the ways in which it can be used. For example, a math teacher with a total view of a student’s academic records might realize that the reason a student is struggling with word problems is actually because of a problem in reading comprehension. In another instance, a gifted student who isn’t being challenged by their normal course work can access advanced lesson plans or network with a mentor at a university.

These are the kinds of insights we need if we are going to solve the very real problem of transforming our nation’s schools for the future. Our economy depends on an education system built to bring us the next generation of innovators, and I am excited to help lead IBM’s efforts to make this vision a reality.

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