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Stanford launches new master’s degree program in education data science

Photo of student examining data on a screen
Stanford's new master's program in education data science will equip students to interpret data amassed by school districts, universities and tech companies. (Photo: Laurence Dutton/iStock)

Stanford launches new master’s degree program in education data science

The pioneering program will focus specifically on the use of data to solve educational challenges.

When it comes to understanding how people learn, data is vital—and it’s become ubiquitous, as school districts, universities and education technology companies amass increasingly complex records of students’ behavior.

Few education professionals, however, have the skills to make the most of that data. And few data scientists understand the educational environment well enough to interpret that data or even to know the questions to ask.

In a groundbreaking step to bridge this gap, Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) is launching a new master’s program in education data science, the first program of its kind to focus specifically on the use of data to solve educational challenges.

“Without data, it’s nearly impossible to provide students, teachers and policy makers with the kind of feedback that supports continual improvement,” said Daniel Schwartz, the I. James Quillen Dean and Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Educational Technology at the GSE. “The new master’s program in education data science will produce the talent we need to take the vast amount of data now being generated and apply it to new possibilities in education.”

The 18-month master of science program is now recruiting students for its inaugural cohort, which will begin in the fall of 2021. The GSE is also introducing a track for PhD students interested in focusing on data science.

“With the volume and new shapes of data we’re generating now, we can get a much more detailed picture of how people learn.” 

Sanne Smith
Director, Education Data Science Program

‘A detailed picture of how people learn’

The use of data has surged in all areas of research and industry in recent years, and education is no exception. The growing use of technology in teaching and learning has created massive data sets—and with that, opportunities to improve and customize education.

Consider the widespread adoption of online learning platforms, which is providing schools and tech companies with extensive data on the learning experience. Clickstreams, discussion forums, even video and voice recordings reveal information about how students interact with the content and each other.

At the same time, advances in brain science research are beginning to increase our understanding about students’ spectrum of abilities. And while many schools have long relied on “thin” measures of learning and engagement, such as test scores and attendance records, new tools make it possible to capture more nuanced and wide-ranging information about student learning and the effectiveness of different teaching methods.

“With the volume and new shapes of data we’re generating now, we can get a much more detailed picture of how people learn,” said Sanne Smith, a lecturer at the GSE and director of the new master’s degree program. “The infrastructure to collect and analyze the data is just starting to emerge. We need professionals who can mine this type of data, organize it, visualize it and analyze it.”

Part of a larger initiative

The master’s program grew out of a new strategic initiative at the GSE called Transforming Education with Data, which supports research and innovations in the emerging field of education data science and learning analytics. The GSE’s initiative is connected to a university-wide focus on data science that arose out of the Long-Range Vision to advance the tools of data science to respond to challenges in science and society.

The new degree program in education data science brings together researchers in many disciplines—not just education and data science, but also engineering, linguistics, sociology, psychology, political science and economics.

The particular focus on education also sets this program apart from others that prepare students more generally for a career in data science—a focus that supports students in developing technical skills as well as building a professional community.

“You learn best when you practice on something that you care about,” said Smith. “In this program, students are studying data science with a group of peers who are also passionate about education. At the same time, they’re creating a network of fellow professionals who also care about education.”

Combining academic coursework with real-world experience, the program begins with core courses in data science and education theory and practice before students move into more specialized tracks. During the summer, students will either work with faculty as a research assistant or take an internship with a firm or institution such as a school district central office, education policy think tank or an education technology company.

“These organizations need professionals who can analyze data and ask the right questions,” said Smith. “There’s so much untapped potential out there, in terms of different types of education data and the ability to use it to shed new light on problems. This program opens up new possibilities for the field.”

Faculty mentioned in this article: Dan Schwartz, Sanne Smith

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