There was a time when 100 megabytes (MB) of data was thought to be mindboggling. Soon after, it was commonplace to have memory sticks that could store 1 gigabyte (GB) of information. (1 GB = 1000 MB) By around 2010, it was common to see external hard drives that could store 1 terabyte (TB) of information (1 TB = 1000 GB).
Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, points out that from the beginning of time until 2003 we generated 5 exabytes of digital information (1 EB = 1 billion GB). By 2010 we were generating 5 exabytes of information every two days. By 2013 we were generating five exabytes of information every ten minutes.
Forbes magazine reports that “more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race. Data is growing faster than ever before and by the year 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet. By then, our accumulated digital universe of data will grow from 4.4 zettabytes today to around 44 zettabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes.”
That’s a LOT of data. What we need to teach our students, however, is to distinguish between Big Data, Raw Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom.
Big data is just bits and bytes of information — unrelated, incoherent, and undeciphered. Out of this welter and maelstrom of data, the information that we select for a particular purpose may be described as raw information. Information is less random than data. It is useful and meaningful, but it needs to be analysed and examined if it’s going to be useful. Once we take that raw information and convert it into something useful and applicable then we’ve achieved knowledge. But knowledge is still only useful information and facts. Once we’re able to use that knowledge (selected, analysed, and relevant data) and employ it in effective moral, ethical, intellectual, and philosophical ways, that’s when we get wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to synthesise elements of knowledge and experiences and convert them into insights that give us a more profound understanding of the connections in reality, the relationships between things, and the meaning of life.
Currently, we can store data and information on computers. But the only place we can store knowledge and wisdom is in a human brain. (Of course, this will change in the near future due to exponentially growing technologies).
Consider the image of the Pale Blue Dot. The bits and bytes that image is made of is data. That data exists out there. But when it is captured, the image/photograph itself is a form of information. The relevance and significance of that information are what translate into knowledge (the fact that the Earth is a lonely speck in a vast and hostile all-encompassing cosmic blackness). Knowledge helps create a map of the world. However, the transition from knowledge to wisdom is what we choose to do with that captured, analysed, significant data. How we choose to change our lives and our actions as a result of the Pale Blue Dot is what we’d call wisdom.
We are living in an era of Big Data that is growing at an exponential rate. Converting that Big Data into Raw Information and subsequently into useful knowledge is incredibly important. Currently, Big Data is used to make a positive impact in various aspects of our lives; including:
Health (over 100,000 health apps self-track data via sensors).
Home (to monitor energy consumption and reduce energy wastage)
Travel (airlines use data from customers to make future travel more convenient)
Shopping (past shopping habits are used to make recommendations and loyalty schemes are tailored)
Urban Transport (a combination of magnetic sensors, GPS, and social media is used to ensure traffic doesn’t build up and public transport is more efficient)
In a world where we currently have exponential growth in Big Data and the Internet of Things — a system of sensors and a series of networks connect all electronic gadgets and upload data and information to the cloud. This will revolutionise all aspects of human life — including education. Students’ online behaviour, browsing habits, music and book interests, testing results, social media interactions etc. will all be used by schools and teachers to tailor education to the needs of the individual and create more personalised education.
Big Data in Education
During their academic lifetime, students generate massive amounts of data — more than just results of tests and exams (travel routes, hours spent doing homework, time spent doing extracurricular, library book choices, and so on). We’re now beginning to develop the effective software and the right apps to makes sense of all this data and convert it to useful knowledge. We’ll have algorithms that will analyse which students perform best with which groups of students — allowing teachers to analyse why and help develop a better learning environment for their class.
The biggest advantage of Big Data in education is that it will allow teachers and schools to create customised programmes for individual students. Standardised tests, cookie-cutter assessments and one-size-fits-all curricula can no longer be the norm. Using the right algorithms, datasets, and software apps we’ll be able to customise education like never before and improve the learning experience in real-time. And using all the data from predictive analytics can give students, parents, and teachers into future outcomes.
Our concern should also be about we store and share all these exabytes, petabytes and brontobytes of information?
Barter, trade, sharing goods and services, and a hyperlinked global economy have been crucial for the upward trajectory of our species over the last several centuries and millennia — particularly in the latter half of the 20th century. However, in the 21st century, the most important commodity is information and it’s vital that we find effective ways to save and share it. In the early days of email, it was not just a luxury, it was simply not possible to save all one’s emails in one’s inbox. But today, it’s the simplest thing in the world to save all the emails we receive and send. We can also save all our texts and messages on WhatsApp and Messenger. Cloud sharing tools like Dropbox allow us to instantly sync all our data to all our devices. In the near future, we will be able to save every single phone call we make and receive at no cost. When devices like Google Glass become commonplace then every sound we hear, every image we see can be captured, uploaded to the cloud, and shared instantly with whomever we wish.
How we share data, information, and knowledge will be crucial to how our species develops in the coming decades and centuries. If we look to restrict and fence in Information it would stifle the growth of our species. Instead, we ought to look to curate, share, and spread it — only then will human knowledge multiply and grow. The HUMAN Project points out, “The larger and more diverse our mind pool, the more interesting and useful ideas we might be able to generate together.”
But more important than knowledge generation — or perhaps, just as important — is to decide what knowledge is worth sharing and storing. What set of criteria do we use to decide this information is more valuable or significant than that information. And fostering the ability to translate that information into useful knowledge and wisdom is perhaps even more important. And perhaps most important is to synthesise all this new knowledge to create — new ideas, philosophies, modes of thoughts, products, systems of governance, and ultimately to raise human standards and improve the human condition.
The ultimate goal has to be for our species to know everything and share everything. We’d never be content with anything less than Universal Comprehension. Of course, that might be a pipe dream. Of course, it might be unrealistic or hubristic — but that’s not going to stop us from trying.