Big Data in Schools: Workflows and analysis, not products and systems

Big Data in Schools - Matt Harris, Ed.D.The medical system has figured it out. Governments seem to be focusing on it. And you know MNCs (Multi-National Corporations) live it: Data is the currency of the modern age. Organizations must know how to connect, flow, analyze, and leverage their data to best realize their purposes and meet their visions. No longer can you rely on the efforts of hard working employees or managers to move the needle forward.

So, why haven’t we realized this in schools?

What I have found, is that most schools are focused on getting the right Student Information System (SIS) or Learning Management System (LMS) before they know what they are looking for and how they will use the systems. Vendors come in peddling their products, highlights the amazing things a school can accomplish for the paltry cost of $10 per student per month.

And this is the Ready Fire Aim paradox. Instead, schools need to focus on the following in order to best for their missions of educating students:

  • Learn what data you have, need, and want…get the right data
  • Establish your workflows of data
  • Identify how your systems will connect together
  • Forecast a longer term plan for using your data to improve conditions

Data, the right data that is, is a powerful commodity. Schools need to record information that is useable to draw conclusions about instructional efficacy, student demographics, financial conditions, and long term strategic planning. For private institutions, this also include admissions pipelines, marketing efforts, and alumni relations…plus the million things I haven’t mentioned. However, relying on standardized tests or non-standardized grading procedures, failing to record formative assessments or cohort performance, or ignoring former students or inquiries from new students put schools behind the curve. Thus, the first step schools need to accomplish is to identify the most salient information within their organization they need to learn about their organization.

Next, schools need to think about processes and flow. Where does data come in for new students? Which positions touch assessment data and what do they do with it? How do we track financial outlays and ensure vendor compliance? You’ll notice I didn’t talk about people here. Schools would be best served to outline their processes as workflows of information from systems to systems and positions to positions. Again, gone are the days where we can rely on star performers to make sure the organization keeps going. We now have to learn how our schools perform as interconnected processes and find leverage points to make things more efficient and effective. If someone leaves, we need to retain knowledge (data) and manage change.Connected Data Systems - Matt Harris, Ed.D.

After this, there is a need for culture shift. We need to see departments, especially their data, not as silos. We need to realize that every data system we buy needs to feed from the same trough. Centralized data that feeds the network of systems is the only way to ensure that our “right” data has integrity, useful, and security. Your product can’t connect to our central database? Sorry, we can’t move forward with you. Schools need to think about the ecosystem of databases, not isolated products that solve individual problems for isolated units. Once combined, data will be consistent and reliable across all parts of the organization.

Not only that, but the right data that flow through our ecosystem can now to be used for school improvement. Imagine extrapolating cohort performance on mathematics that allows you make curriculum changes for the coming year. Think about connecting financial data with curriculum data and human resources to create a professional development for staff target at the learning needs of the whole school. What if you could use data to track the pipeline of your admissions inquiries through to your alumni matriculation. With the right data, you can use the big data engines that corporations rely upon to make schooling better in a single site or among an entire district.

This is where we need to head: away from individual products that meet our short term departmental and budgetary needs to an ecosystem of data that is purposefully built and utilized for improvement. Do that and your departmental needs will be met and your budget will free up a lot more space.

I work as an Educational Technology consultant at International EdTech committed to helping schools use technology successfully. I frequently present at conferences on Educational Leadership, Learning Technology, IT, and Data Systems. I am also a a published author focusing on Educational Technology, International Education, and Leadership.

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