‘Big data’ is one of the most popular catch phrases in education technology at the moment. Proponents of ‘big data’ focus on the usefulness of seeing connections between a wide variety of factors or being able to solve complex problems by seeing patterns in big data. As it becomes easier and easier to collect both qualitative and quantitative data in our schools, we need to be more critical of how we do this and how we use data. Generating vast repositories of numbers is meaningless if teachers and students are not able to easily use this information to reflect on and enhance teaching strategies and approaches to learning.
Using data in schools
Traditionally, schools have collected data on student learning in the form of grades or scores related to assessments. Tests like PISA provide a broader context for the data; scores related to academics are analysed in conjunction with markers such as income, literacy rates, and social background. Too often, this data collection process is very much a one way street. Students provide the information or data points, teachers may review it or then pass it on to some other organization such as the IB, AP, or national education authorities. In turn, feedback on the data is passed back down directly to the students or parents; students passed or failed, they met the requirements for financial aid or gained a university course. In many of these processes, teachers are left out of the data loop and students are only minimal participants.
In addition, schools are looking for ways to measure student development beyond academics. For schools using the International Baccalaureate programmes, it’s becoming increasingly important for them to track student development in Approaches to Learning, Service Learning and the Learner Profile. Data around these areas not only provides insight into student development, but it is also important for schools going through IB authorization and evaluation.
If we want to collect and use data effectively in schools, then it has to be with a method that promotes inquiry, conversation and reflection for students, teachers, parents and administrators.
Collaboration with students
It’s time to make ‘big data’ an accessible and useful part of teaching and learning. How to go about this? Firstly, we need to make sure that students and teachers are equal stakeholders in the process. Data collection processes can be simplified and made engaging through apps or desktop software. Student-friendly interfaces encourage learners to log data and view their progress. Clear feedback in the form of graphs, charts or interactive diagrams can turn a sea of numbers into something more digestible. Secondly, we need to consider the purpose of data collection. There is no point in collecting data if teachers and students don’t find it useful. The benefit of putting data collection into the hands of students is the promotion of student agency. Students engage in a reflective process while choosing what skills or achievements to log. Teachers are then provided with a unique view of their curriculum implementation; from the point of view of the student. As well as providing a rich store of data for teachers, this sort of data collection process encourages teachers and students to have a conversation around student learning that is not centred solely around an assessment or grade book number. Data collection processes like that used by Skill Tracker encourage qualitative and quantitative data, providing a richer, more nuanced picture of student development.
Too often professional development is driven by an external demand such as a school authorization or district requirement. If teachers receive feedback on their teaching, it is usually in the form of another teacher observing them in the classroom. For teachers of grades where there are no significant external exams, it can sometimes be uncertain as to how much a student has progressed in a year. Or whether they have progressed enough to start the next year confidently with the skills that they need. This is where Skill Tracker has significant benefits. It provides teachers with direct feedback on student skill development throughout the course of the year. Teachers can see if students have missed a certain skill or are in need of further challenges. For professional development purposes, data from Skill Tracker can be used to align curriculum implementation vertically as well as horizontally. Data can also inform teachers where they may be inadvertently focussing on a limited amount of skills or not providing opportunities for students to master skills.
The future of data
The bottom line is that data is not just for administrators to look at, and it’s not just quantitative data around assessments. Technology provides us with many creative and simple ways for students and teachers to be part of data collection, analysis and application throughout the school year. Using a tool such as Skill Tracker makes it easy to collect qualitative and quantitative data in a format that promotes reflective conversations between teachers, students and parents. Teachers receive direct feedback on curriculum implantation and students are given agency of their learning.