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Lessons in Digital Learning from the Florida State University Football Team

• Adam Peshek

Empowering students starts with understanding students. Data is a powerful tool for teachers, parents and students as they work to align instruction around the customized needs of each learner.

To truly center learning around students, ExcelinEd has said and advocated consistently that this use of data must be done in a secure manner that allows teachers, parents and students the ability to trust how data is being used.

Sensitive student information should never be placed in the wrong hands and we need to be vigilant when it comes to determining how data is stored and accessed. However, our concerns about privacy should not create roadblocks for the transformative ways that data can be leveraged to improve student learning.

Recently ran a story detailing how personalized technology and data analysis contributed to Florida State University’s championship season in football (my alma mater). Players wear specially-designed chest harnesses equipped with GPS monitors that produce real-time data on player performance and health.

“Each GPS monitor returns about 1,000 unique data points per second, which for 95 players practicing for a few hours a day amounts to an overwhelming amount of information for coaches to dissect. Florida State now employs two assistants working full-time hours – [Chris] Jacobs and Kratik Malhotra, a data analyst with a degree in electronics engineering — just to sift through the numbers.”

Florida State benefited from an unusually low number of muscle injuries last season, which Coach Jimbo Fisher partially credits towards the technology. The data allowed Coach Fisher to adjust practice and workout schedules to ensure that the team was prepared for each game, without over- or under-doing it. Using the technology, practices and conditioning could be tailored to meet the specific needs of individual players. Incoming freshmen are put through a series of training exercises and their results are documented and serve as a baseline for future goals.

As head coach Jimbo Fisher says, this technology “takes a lot of the guesswork out of how your team is feeling, how individuals are performing and how you moderate practice.”

Part of the push for digital learning in K-12 education is being done with this end goal in sight, where teachers can take the guesswork out of teaching a class of students and get real-time data on how individual students are performing and how instruction should be altered.

This form of education can be most-popularly seen at the Khan Academy, which provides free online lessons in a wide range of topics. Those interested in math, for example, can watch lessons starting at basic arithmetic all the way through linear algebra. After each lesson, students take a quiz to identify the topics that students have mastered and those they need more instruction in. Once a student has clearly mastered a subject, their individual “dashboard” is updated and the student is cleared to move on. If a student is struggling with a concept, they are directed back to the lectures, where they can also comment and view questions on that topic’s discussion board. Students take quizzes at the end of each unit and periodically throughout their studies to ensure that they have mastered the foundational work that future lessons are based on.

The use of data is also being used in brick-and-mortar schools, albeit at a much slower pace. One shining example is the Carpe Diem School in Yuma, Arizona, where hundreds of students receive their instruction from computer lessons and teachers monitor student progress and intervene as soon as they see students struggle in specific areas. Just like the technology employed by FSU has allowed for customized practices that do not push the players beyond their limit, Carpe Diem’s technology allows for more customized education, where a student is allowed to advance at their own pace and not forced into topics that they are not ready for.

Players at FSU are not intimidated or antagonistic towards their new technology – quite the contrary. The technology is pushing them to be better players.

The article details a moment on the practice field where freshman tailback Dalvin Cook beats the team’s record for 40-yard dash – 22.8 mph – previously held by veteran receiver Rashad Greene. “He beat my record,” Greene said. “So I’ve got to go get him on Monday.” Greene says that players see the data analyst on the field every day and players “can’t wait to hear his voice.”

Let’s hope that the burgeoning arguments against data privacy and digital learning don’t create additional roadblocks for creating a personalized system of education for students. When used correctly, data can revolutionize the way students learn.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.