2022-11-06 19:15:00

Why schools need a data strategy

By Emma Westwood

Data expert John Price explains why schools need to get serious about data.

EdSmart spoke to data and analytics specialist John Price about the relationship between schools and data a few years ago but his observations only grow in relevance. In the following Q&A, he highlights why having a data strategy is just as important for schools as any other business or organisation. 

Why is data capture and visibility important for educational institutions?

Ethical and appropriate use of data is important for any organisation that wants to better connect with the needs of real people.

In business, it’s about understanding customers better in order to provide them with what they want and need, while doing so at the most effective possible use of limited resource.

In government, it’s about keeping your finger on the pulse of constituents and governing in a way that best allocates policy, process and resource to the right places, right times, right people.

In science, data of all kinds helps us validate or invalidate hypotheses that cure disease, prolong human lives and progress the human race technologically.

Education is no different, yet the opportunity to improve the use of data for positive outcomes is immense. Understanding the correlations between student opportunities and the outputs of education can help us determine better ways of teaching, better curriculums and, ultimately, even the personalisation of education content.

It is in fact our education system that teaches us from childhood onwards the importance of evidence-based decisions and of questioning the world around us to find evidence of better ways forward.

School students

What initial steps can schools take to approach data management smartly?

Before embarking on any significant data investment, it’s important to get a handle on use cases. This is about understanding what data you want and need, and the specific outcome you would seek if you were able to use it.

This prevents you from trying to boil the ocean, and ensures a focused, appropriate use of data. For example, if we were able to understand the impact of students’ intellectual, social and cultural characteristics on test scores, would that be off value? What about school proximity to students? What about teacher quality or the curriculum used?

Use cases help design specific parameters of data and introduce the baseline by which data scientists can work their magic once the data starts to flow. Working with partners is a great way to achieve this, as it helps to have 'outside' eyes that understand but aren't directly in your shoes.

Secondly, a proper consideration of ethics and data governance is key. I've conducted my own research into what we call the data value exchange. This is about understanding the reasons why people would be willing to provide their data to an organisation for a specific use, and what that organisation needs to do to keep that person’s trust.

Ultimately, it’s why being ethical in data collection is far more important than being compliant. Compliance is the bare minimum but standards will lift in future – so focus on what your customers, constituents or students believe to be an appropriate use.

Finally, consider the data ownership issue. If you are completely reliant on external sources to provide you with data for analysis, you may be placing yourself at future risk of that data being rendered unavailable, unusable, or commercially unviable. Understanding the risks associated with using third party data and working with providers you trust and have transparency with, will help you make informed decisions about how you resource your data strategy.

How can a more mature data approach impact the experience of stakeholders across a school community?

Ultimately, the value of data is determined by improved, evidence-based outcomes. Those improved outcomes in education may take the form of:

  • More visibility, transparency and, therefore, evidence-based public debate of education inputs and outcomes to remove political, educator or other biases and agendas;

  • Better teaching experiences at the individual or across-the-board;

  • Better resources and guidance for teachers that are aligned with student needs;

  • Better allocation of resources to the right time and right place where it is needed most.

What are the three biggest trends in data that schools should be mindful of?

1. Connectivity – The ability to stitch data about individual people together at scale is not limited to top secret organisations like the NSA or the CIA.

They are commercially available and do a great job of helping to better understand patterns in data. Remember, the tools are only dangerous if you fail to implement good governance, ethics and security.

2. Analysis – The increasing maturity and availability of data science, machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence is making it easier to identify relevant patterns and correlations in data to make meaningful decisions – quickly.

One of the fastest growing and most in demand professions is currently data science for a reason.

3. Decision paralysis – This is worse than having to iterate data strategy. Just like financial markets or buying a house, not being in the market at all because of fear of failure is worse than being in the market and having to iterate your strategy as you navigate challenges.

Common challenges and fears with data involve using bad data, which results in bad decisions or worse, likw using data you shouldn’t have.

Like anything else, start small, make small mistakes while considering the bigger picture and long-term plan, and take advice along the way to ensure you are always striving to do the right thing with data.

Is your school struggling with data security? Join us for our webinar

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