Logo BusinessBecause - The business school voice
mobile search icon

How Five EdTech Start-Ups Are Using Big Data To Boost Business Education

Mooc platforms explore analytics with b-school partners

Wed Jan 20 2016

Education tech companies including Coursera, edX, Udacity and their b-school and university partners are delving deeper into big data analytics to improve teaching and student learning.

Simon Nelson, CEO of online learning company FutureLearn, says: “The potential is incredible — and we are just scratching the surface.”

A report to be published in January by the UK’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) envisages that big data will help identify risk of failure; give students instant feedback; and benchmark their performance against peers.

“Data is an amazing resource for teachers, who glean detailed feedback on how learners are processing information,” says Julia Stiglitz, director of business development at Coursera, the online learning site with 17 million users.

Coursera, which works with the b-schools IE, Yale and Duke Fuqua, offers a dashboard that gives teachers insight into when students are most likely to stop watching a video, and the percentage who answer assessment questions correctly the first time around.

“If only 10% of learners taking a quiz are answering correctly, teachers can evaluate how they are teaching this particular point, or if the wording of the question is ideal,” Julia says.

Edx, the digital course provider founded by Harvard and MIT, is researching how big data can help answer key online learning questions: which are the best ways to teach complex ideas online? And which parts of a course are best taught in-person?

“By carefully assessing course data, from mouse clicks to time spent on tasks to evaluating how students respond to various assessments, researchers hope to shed light on how learners access information and master materials,” says Nancy Moss, edX’s director of communications.

Oliver Cameron, VP of engineering and product at Udacity, says that rather than waiting for an end-of-semester survey to uncover an issue, instructors can continuously help students make data-driven improvements year-round.

“…..When the data is immediate, the incredible potential for online learning to adapt and improve based on student data becomes apparent,” he says.

At IESE Business School, an “omi-learning” approach sees the Spanish institution uses data to monitor each learner’s performance and personalize their tasks.

In a recent study the directors of IESE’s Learning Innovation Unit, Guiseppe Auricchio and Evgeny Kaganer, argue that with this approach, “professional development goes from being an aggregation of distinct activities to becoming a continuous journey, guided by data-driven insights”.

Use of data analytics can also provide useful information for online learners to upload to recruitment sites like LinkedIn, says the HEC report.

Providing careers services and certificates has been a focus for a number of Mooc, or massive open online course, developers. “We’re providing access to many learners who otherwise would not be able to further their career,” says Coursera’s Julia.

But there are ethical issues involved with gathering so much data on students. Edtech companies have been criticized for what some consider could become an intrusive level of surveillance.  

HEC recommends that institutions allow students the option of opting out of their data being collected.

Mike Feerick, CEO and founder of online learning company ALISON, says the company operates a “code of best practice” for its student data. “We take data privacy very seriously.” But he adds: “There is huge potential for data to improve online learning.”

Another way data could potentially help educators tailor learning is through using wearable technology, says the HEC report. 


The use of wearable tech, like whizzy wristbands devised by Silicon Valley start-ups such as Fitbit, are already being deployed by the world’s top business schools.

NYU Stern MBA students have worked on short projects using Google Glass; at Harvard Business School, professors have worn Jawbone UP wristbands to measure their steps — a theory was levied that activity in lectures can affect how students take in information.

California’s UC-Berkeley Hass School teamed up with Intel to encourage entrepreneurs to develop wearable tech. HEC Paris, meanwhile, is testing Intel’s wearables to boost the performance of its executive students.

Michael Segalla, professor of management at HEC Paris, says the tie-up will “allow us to produce the most reliable data on the market”.