Washington, D.C. — For all the focus on the power of data at the 2014 White House Education Datapalooza, there seemed to be just as much talk about people.

big-data“Data doesn’t do anything,” said Nick Sinai, the deputy chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Data is only worth something if you apply it.”

The event, now in its second year, attracted more than 600 educators, researchers, and data analysts to the Ronald Reagan Building on Jan. 15. It served as both a showcase for a variety of data-focused companies and a platform for the U.S. Department of Education to trumpet the Obama administration’s effort to make governmental data open to the public.

If used to its full potential, this “open data” could add as much as $5 trillion per year to the world’s economy, and, according to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the education sector stands to benefit from that surge more than any other.

Higher Education’s Big (Data) Bang: “When you have 5,000 data points, how do you know what question to ask?”

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the administration had called this now-annual gathering because educators and technology companies need to continue finding ways of lowering costs through the use of data.

The average cost of tuition is now increasing at a rate more than 15 times the average rise of household income.

“This is a serious, serious challenge,” Munoz said. “The president has said 2014 is going to be a year of action.”

Through a series of “rapid-fire” presentations, professors and entrepreneurs discussed ways they are utilizing data to help illuminate cheaper, more effective learning paths for students.

Though the services and products covered a wide range of data projects, many of the presenters emphasized a key shared goal: improving human connections in education.

Chip Paucek, co-founder and chief executive officer of 2U, described his company’s goal as “eliminating the back row.” With 2U’s online courses, less than 10 students are in each class, interacting face-to-face with their instructor on an online platform.

“We like to think of it as intellectual intimacy,” Paucek said.

Laura Perna of LinkedIn discussed the social networks new university pages and how the site now connects students directly with colleges. Ariel Diaz of Boundless pushed for further adoption of textbooks made from open educational resources. Abigail Seldin, CEO of College Abacus, demonstrated the site’s financial aid calculator by examining college costs for the titular character in the film “Akeelah and the Bee.”

Robert Rubin of edX outlined the many ways educators and programmers are taking advantage of the nonprofit massive open online course platform’s open source code.

“It’s transformed from an open source project to an open source community,” Rubin said.

But all of this technology means nothing unless the right hands are putting it in front of the right students, the speakers repeated.

To that end, Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer of Kaplan Inc. aimed a dig toward MOOCs, telling the audience to imagine their worst professors — and then to imagine them broadcasting their teaching to tens of thousands of students at once.

“They are now weapons of mass destruction,” Saxberg said.

For the most part, though, data and technology was referred to throughout the event with reverence. Said Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton of the morning’s showcase of products: “Damn, I wish I’d had that.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan concluded the presentation with a fact he said keeps him awake at night. A generation ago, American universities’ graduation rates were ranked first in the world.

“Now, we’re twelfth,” Duncan said. “We need a different way of thinking about these issues.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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