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Uncle Sam looks to Walmart, so should schools?

Nah, they seem to be doing just fine

On Black Friday, the world’s largest purveyor of miscellaneous goods is watching the clocks, hustling behind the scenes so that items flying off the shelves in earlier time zones are put front and center in later time zones.

Walmart hasn’t always been able to tell the future, just since 2012.

There was a time, before it developed its data crunching center, dubbed the CAFÉ, that the conglomerate of 11,695 stores and clubs (Wiki’s latest tally) was embroiled in numerical chaos like any other large retailer. Locations in Maine, say, may have long had more bug repellent and fishing gear than those in Los Angeles, but such an approach is more common sense than science.

It took terabytes of processing power and the guidance of a data whisperer to make more predictions in real time.

(Read about that on that here.)

This is big data shaping reality, not to mention raising blood pressure as everyone scrambles to keep up. The buzzword may have lost its new car smell since popping up around 2000, but its influence only grows and grows, so much so that the Federal Trade Commission dedicated 50 pages to weighing in on the topic last year (the conclusion: very exciting but not without concerns); and agents of Uncle Sam even consulted with the contractor who helped orchestrate Walmart’s CAFÉ.

This example, given to Toggle by that contractor, Robert Abate, is tantalizing because the results are so tangible. Often they are when the desired outcome is higher sales or something equally countable.

Yet the impact of big data is more ambiguous in the public sector often covered by Toggle, notably in K-12 schools, where measuring sticks—among them, standardized testing, graduation rates, attendance, and what’s known as “proficiency”—have long been sought and long been controversial.

Even the impact of the earliest technology-based initiatives, such as one-to-one, have been disputed.

Technology is no silver bullet. But it is embedded in our society, and so it must be weaved into the fabric of our schools, measuring be damned.

Maine, the state in which Toggle is headquartered, was among the first to grant students laptops 15 years ago; today that’s just a matter of keeping with the times, yet the host radio station of NPR, MPBN, recently aired a program in which the reporter couldn’t help but ask if this initiative had, after all those years, actually had a positive impact.

She cited a study that found smaller class sizes may be more effective or equally so at giving students a leg up in life.

Patiently, a technologist being interviewed provided ballast.

His answer: you’re missing the point. Technology is no silver bullet. But it is embedded in our society, and so it must be weaved into the fabric of our schools, measuring be damned.

I don’t envy him or the many technologists profiled in Toggle who must buttress against a kind of pathological skepticism wound up in the supercharged issue of K-12 education.

Yet I also understand why that reporter was skeptical. With the phantom of funding, public figures are often quick to trespass against that empirical truism that correlation is not causation. They might say, for instance, that Wi-Fi will make students successful instead of more accurately saying that Wi-Fi is essential to them being successful—a huge but easily misstated difference.

No matter, Toggle’s just the venue for discussion. Leave the pontification and explanation to the many professionals who have been generous enough with their time to be profiled in our recent edition.

One thing’s for sure. No matter your views on big data, its plusses and ramifications, Walmart sure has its ducks in a row; and it’s not just Black Friday when it’s paying attention.

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Summer 2017

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