Amazon and Education


No this is not a post about e-textbooks or the Kindle Fire. It is all about Amazon’s new predictive shipping patent. The idea is simple, Amazon records a whole bunch of data when you are on their site looking at things you may buy. Based on your past purchasing history, how often you view the item (or similar items), it may ship that item to a local distribution center, so when you do order it, the shipping time is cut way down. They even talk about even shipping items to your home before you even purchase them!

So what the hell does this have to do with education? That’s a good question – it is the predictive algorithm that catches my eye and got my brain jogging around a bit. Why can’t we have something like that for our school and built into our student information systems. Interesting idea huh? Let me flesh it out a little more for you.

Imagine this, an eighth grade student who has had organizational issues in the past starts off the year great – like every year. Then in November starts to take a drastic downward turn as the demands of the school overwhelm him. His grades plummet, his anxiety level rises, his mood and demeanor start to change. It’s pretty common. Now, if there was a predictive student information system (SIS), then here is how it may go down.

This eighth grade student is doing great, but the SIS recognizes that he has had problems in November in past years. At the end of October an alert is sent out to teachers to watch his academic performance a little closer. An email is sent out to parents encouraging them to be extra supportive and assist a little more with his studies. The counselors find that he is on their calendar to speak with him about organizational issues and of course the student gets an email encouraging him to be a little more vigilant and not to fall back into familiar patterns. All of this before the first assignment in November has been assigned. All this to help change someone’s behavior for the better. Will it stop everyone from spiraling down? No, but by making so many people aware of potential problems, the school, the parents and the student are now in a new place to be proactive instead of reactive. I

This example pretty much sums up my experience in middle school and I wasn’t alone. I knew others who fell into this pattern. Lucky for me I had good teachers, parents and friends around me to help me out, but it took it really wasn’t until my junior in high school that I was able to really break this pattern and started being more proactive than reactive. A system like this would have helped me make that journey a lot faster and with a lot more direction.

In my mind the system is more than just watching and sending emails and alerts. It also follows up, watches the student and records their performance after the alerts. Charting, recording and updating its system to become even more accurate in the future. Maybe this kid doesn’t fall into that hole this year, but the system will keep it in mind when he enters high school.

As a teacher this type of system would be awesome! While teachers are taught to identify trends in classrooms and are usually given quite a bit of data to work, finding the time to sit down with said data and dissect it can be very time consuming and often does not happen. Again, it’s so easy to identify students who are struggling by looking at the grades, but sometimes that is just too late. Sometimes, the damage is done and trying to help the kid catch up is always much more difficult. Having a system that alerts you that Student X sometimes has trouble during this time of the semester is an incredible help.

There are other ways that this system can help teachers. Here is a very common example. A teacher plans for a chapter test at the end of the week, but is not aware that two other classes are planning for major assessments on those days as well. That is a lot for say a student to handle sometimes. With a predictive system like the one I’m writing about, a rule can be set up to not allow more than so many tests/student in a time frame, so when a teacher enters it into the system, they get an error message saying that there are too many assessments that day.

Now this will affect how a teacher plans and teaches and while this change will be tough at first, but this isn’t the only change. A system like this demands change from teachers as well. Most teachers I know plan a week or a few weeks ahead of time. This system would greatly benefit if a teacher puts all their due dates and assignments in the system ahead of time. Teachers typically don’t like this. They like the freedom of being able to move and flex within a unit as opposed to a more rigid structure.

Having this data ahead of time will give the SIS an enormous data that will help guide students through their demands. Students will know ahead of time which weeks are more demanding than others and allow them to prepare ahead of time. It will also give teachers a heads up of demanding times for themselves as well. Often teachers have little idea of what is happening in other classes.

This type of SIS will obviously put students on their radars, but it will also give them the ability to enter specific information into the system making it more effective. For example if there is a death in the family, a big competition coming up for that student or the birth of a new sibling. These events (for better or worse) have a profound impact on people. Counselors are usually in such a position to know these infdstement details about students and entering it into the system will allow the system to make adjustments for that student.

This can also be used to track behavior as well and help predict when students may have outbursts in class and help prevent them. I’ve seen students snap (both as a teacher and as a student) and it is never an easy experience. I felt for those people. I sat there helplessly wondering what could have been done to help them before this moment. We can’t stop every event, but if we know someone is having academic problems, being bullied or home troubles it can be used to help predict these incidents.

Of course a system like this will need a standard set of tags for this to be effective. Just typing in anecdotal notes (while necessary) will not help the math behind it. It will also need a lot of discipline from the counselors themselves. While the heavy lifting of trying to predict how a student may act, finding that information and making the connection with that student is vital and can be very difficult.

Having this information – wow! It can affect everything from creating schedules, to school trips and possible partners to ideas on how to leverage student leaders who may be a little too shy to step forward. Of course curving discipline will be a big attraction here. I’ve been in a few conversations with parents and students alike who said “He has never acted that way before,” only to find out that in fact he has acted that way a few times before. A system like that gives all that data and patterns right at your finger tips.

If the admin knows that a particular student can be a bit of a bully and it has been documented, how effective would it be to meet with that student every month and talk about what is happening based on the data (past, present and predictive future). I would think something like this would go a long way.

As with other technology, people can lean a little too heavy on it or not use it properly. When these actions happen the system itself suffers and becomes less productive or just doesn’t work well at all. Of course there is always the fact that no system is perfect and it will give incorrect predictions or miss certain trends.

Then there are the people who feel that this is tracking students and putting them into categories and maybe holding them back a little or making them and their parents a little too reliant on the school to bring about meaningful changes in certain behaviors.

All good points.

In the long run though, this is going to happen. Student information systems already contain a dizzying amount of data in the database. I, for one, welcome it. It won’t be perfect and it will take a while for a system like this to be really affective but right now the SIS’s of the world just tend to hold data and bring it up upon demand. They don’t do much with it. It’s just a container and not a great one at that. I want it to use that data, give us some insight that would normally be incredibly difficult and time consuming to extrapolate from normal SIS’s.

Regardless of where you stand on this, it is a debate that is coming. Leave your stance in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Amazon and Education”

  1. Very cool idea. The idea of using an SIS as a predictaive system is truly intriguing. Honestly, my experience with SIS’s are just getting users to input data! Actually using that data seems to be more difficult than it should be.

    Your idea is visionary. Cool stuff.

    1. Thanks Bill – I figure schools have mountains of this data, why not have a system that can do something with it? If a school is unwilling to really look at it and make some meaningful changes then maybe a SIS isn’t what they need. Just my two cents.

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