Schools and Big Data

binaryAs Director of IT I am often directly involved with our School Management Information System (MIS, sometimes referred to as a Student Information System, SIS).   Throughout my career I have encountered and worked with a number of different MIS vendors.     My general opinion is that they are all “much of a muchness” as although they have different features, strengths and weaknesses, when you average them out the benefits and drawbacks are equal in terms of their magnitude.

These systems contain and allow us to collect a variety of data including both formative and summative student performance data.    We then design reports which allow us to interrogate the data and display it in different data.    This addresses the functionality side of an MIS however is rather weak in terms of the usability.    Users need to know which report displays which information so they can select and use the correct report at the correct time.

Within my school we are currently working on making our system more usable by developing a dashboard system to present important information directly to teachers without them have to seek it out.   This would represent an improvement however I feel still falls some way short.

One way improvement could be brought about on the above is to put more power in the hands of the users, allowing them to easily create their own reports using the data which is available.    The issue with this is it relies both on staff having the skills in data analysis to be able to design effective reports, plus it relies on them having the motivation to undertake this task.   Personally I believe this approach would be very beneficial for a small number of staff within a school, with the majority being unable to access it, even where the schools culture is very much around the use of data.   It would also potentially add another job to teaching staffs role in the need for them to design reports to analyse their data, which would represent an issue given the current situation in relation to workloads.

I think the solution lies with Big Data.   Within the IT world there is a lot of discussion with regards Big Data where large data sets are analysed to reveal trends or patterns, with this info then presented to users.   I see this as being of benefit in education.   As opposed to having to check different reports showing different sub-sets of our data such as the performance of male students vs female students, the system would identify the trends that exist for us.   The system would identify where there are correlations, without users needing to be aware of a potential correlation, therefore removing the potential for a correlation to be missed as we weren’t aware of it.    The system would also be able to look at data at a micro and macro level, either down to individual teachers groups assessment results this year, our out to patterns which may exist across a number of years.

Almost all schools have an MIS these days however they are still very much based on their origins, that of very structured data being analysed by reports.     It is about time we looked at the potential for data warehousing, data mining and Big Data to have an impact on how data is used in schools.




Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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