Using Data to Drive Outcomes in Education: Getting the Right ‘Recipe’

Special Focus : Leveraging Technology for a More Equitable Education
Learning and Behavioural Sciences April 13, 2018

Data has become a bit of a dirty word given the recent exposé of how social media platforms vacuum up your interactions and the ‘less then beneficial’ ways these insights can be used! Big data has never had an easy ride in the education world especially given education’s often slow adoption of technology driven or enabled trends.

There has always been an ambivalent attitude to the large-scale use of especially digital data in education, which can oscillate between two equally unhelpful extremes. On one side is the view that given the immense detail of digital learner data and the complexity of processing algorithms available, learner tracking and guidance should be automated, albeit by clever machines that can learn as they go along. The other view is that there is nothing that could ever compare with the insights of the teacher in their classroom, so the teacher’s view is the only view that should ever be counted. As always in scenarios with two extremes, the approach to the use of data that can yield the most impact (improved learning outcomes) is somewhere in the middle. The problem has been in locating that ‘middle’ for both schools and education districts and systems.
So what is the elusive recipe for the successful use of data to drive outcomes in schools? I would never lay claim to having THE recipe for success, but I will venture to suggest some possible vital ingredients below. Bearing in mind that all the best cooks will say that the success of the cake depends largely on the quality of the ingredients! 

  • Individualized, detailed, diverse and real-time (where possible) digital learner data is now possible and readily available thanks to the deployment of EdTech on a large scale in classrooms.
  • This essential ingredient must be complemented by non-digital data sets. They encompass information such as contextual issues, human insights and observations of both learners and learning.
We need to gain the benefits from continuous and comprehensive digital data without losing out on the experience and unique perspective on learning that a teacher can bring.
One of the issues of data use within education is the expectation, found at all levels, that merely assembling the ingredients (data sets) will give you the perfect cake (improved outcomes). As in the world of baking, a multi-step process is needed to achieve results. Again this list is NOT definitive but just a sketch of the steps to consider.
  • Key metrics need to be decided upon for the analysis and outcome indicators – What is the question that YOU are asking? What do YOU need to know from the data? Prioritize and target the analysis provided! Far too often valuable trends and warning signs are drowned in a sea of unnecessary information.
  • Data literacy should be addressed. Don’t assume that everyone is a data savant and knows how to interpret the huge quantity of analysis available. What am I looking for? What should I expect to recognize if there is progress? What are the warning signs I should look out for? Interpretation is often the hardest aspect to grasp. This is the vital link between a point on a graph and what it is showing about what is actually happening within classroom.
  • Collaborative reflections. We often end up dealing with our particular data in isolation, especially when it is generated electronically. There is such a benefit in sharing our interpretations of the analysis, comparing trends and issues and collaborating on possible solutions. 
  • Learner engagement – data is not just about learners, it should be for them too! We are missing out on an important step if learners are not part of this reflective process. We are hoping to enable learners to analyze and respond dynamically to situations – this is one way to cultivate this type of thinking.
We are not finished yet and we need the final step without which, all of this preparation would have been for nothing. We must put the cake in the oven – which means putting our collaborative ‘data informed decisions’ into ACTION. The culmination of all of the above should be an INFORMED CHANGE in what actually occurs with a learner, within a classroom, a school or a district. It is only then that we have a chance of showing how data in education can drive a sustainable and measurable change in outcomes and we can enjoy our cake – chocolate I hope!