PowerBI and School Data

powerBIEver since I started playing around with PowerBI I have found it to be very useful indeed and I must admit that I am most likely only scratching the surface.

I came to experiment with PowerBI to try and address some issues I see with data management.    School data is often presented in colour coded spreadsheets showing student performance against baselines for example.   Different sheets are used to present different views on the data such as showing the performance by subject, by gender or the performance of students by SEN status or by EAL status.   Each additional view on the data, of which there are very many, presents us with another sheet of data.  The data is often presented as flat tables of figures however in some cases may involve pages upon pages of different graphs and charts each showing different views on the available of data.   The logic here being that each additional view on the data gives us more data that we can interpret and therefore a greater opportunity to draw insightful conclusions and from there develop actions.   I believe the reality is the reverse of this.

My belief is that teachers and heads of department don’t have a lot of time to analyse and interpret data, and therefore presenting them with so much data is counterproductive.  Having so many different views on the data presented at once also is difficult to process and to understand.   This in turn leads to either ignoring the data altogether or to giving it only a very cursory glance.   For those that love data it may lead to excessive amounts of time spent poring of the data, to data overload, where time spent planning actions, as opposed to analysing data, would be more productive.    As such I subscribe to the belief that “less is more”.

This is where PowerBI comes in.    PowerBI allows me to take my mountains of spreadsheet data and present it in a very easy to digest graphical format where each of these graphs and charts are interactive.    In PowerBI rather than one sheet by subject and another sheet for gender based data, you have just one set of graphs and charts.   You would just click on a gender or select a gender and all the graphs will change to show the results for that gender.   You might then click an SEN status to see how students who are male with SEN needs are doing compared to students on average.    This means we can combine all our different views which are normally represented by different sheets on a spreadsheet into a single set of graphs and charts.   The user then accesses the various views of the data by clicking on and through these graphs and charts.

The benefit of PowerBI is the ability to dynamically manipulate and explore the data by clicking through various graphs and filters.   You develop an almost tangible feeling for the data as you explore through it.   This is something that flat spreadsheets, even if graphs are included, lack.   Also, as you have less to look at, in one set of graphs rather than pages and pages of them, you have more time to explore and engage with the data.

The one current drawback to PowerBI is simply cost.   It is free to use as an individual both web based or via a desktop application, and you can share via sharing desktop app developed BI files however if you want to share via the web platform or if you wish to publish internally via SharePoint you will need a Pro license for each user.    Where you are sharing with a large number of users, even at educational pricing, this can become expensive.   Hopefully this is something Microsoft will be looking at and can resolve in the near future.

Schools continue to be sat on mountains of data.    PowerBI is a tool which allows us to present this data in a more user-friendly form which then allows it to be easily explored and manipulated, allowing more time to plan actions and bring about continuous improvement.  If you haven’t already done so I definitely recommend putting some of your school data in PowerBI and having a play with its capabilities.

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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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