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Putting Big Data to the Test

15 Mar 2016 by Heather Breedlove

“If you can't measure it, you can't improve it,” says Peter Drucker, a leader in management education. The idea of data-driven decisions has been happening in school districts for years. However, the technology and amount of data involved has been increasing and evolving into big data, where traditional ways of processing data are becoming inadequate.

School districts are struggling with ways to harness big data and its benefits for student achievement and learning. Analyzing data for more than 10,000 students can be cumbersome over multiple systems, and it’s difficult for staff to synthesize into trends or patterns. Districts rely on data-based decisions to clarify issues, provide alternative solutions to problems and target appropriate resources.

"The trend to see and use information as an asset is still in the 'early adoption' phase, making doing so a competitive differentiator for leading organizations. But even where information leaders have embraced this idea, there's an array of challenges to transform the idea of value into a reality that benefits the organization,” according to Gartner’s report, “Seven Steps to Monetizing Your Information Assets,” published October 15, 2015.

Data-driven decisions
Districts now face their own test to utilize the power of big data and prevent being overwhelmed with large amounts of information from incompatible or dated systems that make data analysis time-consuming and inefficient, according to the National Education Technology Plan 2016 from the Office of Educational Technology.

Although many districts do not have the learning dashboards that are outlined in National Education Technology Plan, they have phased in data-driven decisions to design interventions for students.

“We implemented WIN, which stands for What I Need. You’re using common assessments, exit tickets, and progress monitoring to determine the needs of the kids in reading and math. It’s based on need and not necessarily level,” says Katie Hill, instructional coach for the Litchfield Elementary School District.

While individual-student information helps teachers make instructional decisions, state district assessment data determine the school ranking or grade. At Litchfield Elementary School District, which received an “A” grade by the Arizona Department of Education in 2013-2014 school year based on state test performance and how much students grow academically from one year to the next, this ranking has had a positive impact on student enrollment, which provides more funding for schools.

Benefits of big data

Information has economic value that organizations can “turn into money” by: selling, bartering or licensing it; or by using it to reduce costs or increase revenue. Yet most information and business leaders lack the experience and tools to monetize information. Gartner’s report, “Seven Steps to Monetizing Your Information Assets,” makes recommendations for using data to get ahead in today’s digital world. "There are three ways school districts can use data to their advantage,” including:

Gain a competitive edge. Although school districts do not “monetize” information the same way businesses do, they can use data and information to make informed decisions to increase student achievement, which in turn proves them more marketable to parents seeking a quality education for their children. 

Strengthen relationships. Districts can use big data to strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, community members, teachers and staff.

Inform purchasing decisions. Big data can help districts determine return on investment in choosing educational programs, professional development and Web-based resources. Analyzing data can help reduce costs and make purchasing decisions easier.

Tools to track big data

Districts need to clarify issues before they look for solutions. What are the biggest needs for the district? Dropout rates? Attendance? Discipline tracking? Find a solution that will answer those questions and provide related data to necessary stakeholders.

Parent and student dashboards — Consider a student information system that offers more than just a gradebook. Synergy or Powerschool both offer parent- and student-portals or apps that can also track grades, assignments and communication with teachers.

Data visualization — Instead of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet or misplacing data binders, Tableau and iDashboards offer administrators and teachers a variety of ways to present data in interactive charts, graphs and infographics.

If your school has not yet taken the leap to big data — or is still waiting on funding for more technology in the classroom — its benefits may not yet be on your radar. Download the Gartner report, “Seven Steps to Monetizing Your Information Assets,” or “learn more about big data and discover background information that will help you make a well-informed decision to put the right infrastructure in place for the future. Otherwise, get in touch with Insight at 1.804.0757 to ask an education specialist questions and find answers to your pressing big data challenges.