The Three Ways Teachers Use Data—and What Technology Needs to Do Better


The Three Ways Teachers Use Data—and What Technology Needs to Do Better

from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

By Karen Johnson     May 17, 2016

The Three Ways Teachers Use Data—and What Technology Needs to Do Better

As part of a groundbreaking personalized learning initiative, CICS West Belden put iPads and Chromebooks into the hands of every student at the Chicago charter school—just not right away.

For the first year, West Belden tested the devices in just a few pilot classrooms—and only after teachers and students were prepared to use them. School leaders emphasized the need to bring teachers with differing comfort levels on board; those who were most enthusiastic about leveraging technology helped design the full implementation, select the software, and run the pilot classrooms to spark interest among their peers.

“We believe there’s a human factor to teaching and learning,” says Scott Frauenheim, principal of CICS West Belden, which is part of the Chicago International Charter School network.

As part of the preparation for the full 1:1 rollout this past fall, teachers evaluated a wide range of personalized learning software through a pilot network led by local nonprofit LEAP Innovations. Teachers narrowed their choices to just four applications—one each for individualized math and literacy instruction at the elementary and middle school level. According to Frauenheim, the tools’ ability to process and deliver information about student performance in easy-to-understand ways was a key deciding factor for educators.

Now, almost a year into full implementation, Frauenheim remains amazed by what even the youngest students can do with the technology—and what educators can learn about student progress as they work individually and in small groups using the tablets and laptops. Every two to three days, West Belden teachers use data dashboards to make instructional decisions based on each student’s performance.

West Belden took great pains to be methodical during the planning and rollout of the initiative, including narrowing the software in use and carving out time for educators to collaborate and plan instruction based on the data they receive from it. Yet, Frauenheim says teachers are still challenged by the sheer volume of information they’re receiving.

“The data piece was a barrier and continues to be a barrier, because there’s such a broad range of data coming from each device with 28 students in the classroom,” Frauenheim says.

I’ve written before about how too much data can be overwhelming for teachers. That’s why in our research on how teachers use technology, we focused extensively on the ways they put data to use. After surveying more than 4,650 educators, we learned that teachers are essentially trying to do three things with data—each of which technology can dramatically improve:

1. Assess

Teachers want tools that help them see how their entire classes—and individual students—are doing. Right now, too much time is spent on the multiple steps needed to prepare data for analysis—copying it from one application like a digital gradebook or a spreadsheet into another. For teachers, one of technology’s big promises (if not the biggest) is making the importing and transferring of data a thing of the past.

Digital tools can also allow teachers to do things that are often impractical now—like integrating information beyond what they see in their own classroom to get a fuller picture of each child, and tracking non-academic skills such as perseverance. And as these teachers tell us in the video below, educators want students to see and understand where they are in their own learning journeys.

2. Analyze

Teachers want to analyze data “at the speed of teaching”—in other words, to pinpoint where students are struggling in time to change what they’re doing during a unit instead of having to go back to reteach it. Digital tools can do what teachers don't have time to do during the course of a lesson; they can crunch the data and immediately identify students' specific challenges so the teacher can clear up any confusion on the spot.

Technology can also help teachers match student performance with key standards, as well as the disparate strands that make up each concept behind the standard. It can also aggregate data over time to allow teachers to follow trends, not just snapshots of one moment in time. Finally, as the teachers in the video below share, digital tools could help teachers compare the trajectory of their students with those who have taken the same course in the past to know where the likely pitfalls might be—and how to best address them.

3. Pivot

Teachers want to make sure they’re constantly adjusting instruction to adapt to the needs of every student, but the way schools and curriculum work—grouping students by grade, not skill level—makes it tough to differentiate all the way down to the individual level. Digital tools like the ones West Belden has put into place give students the ability to work at their own pace and progress as they learn key concepts, without teachers losing the ability to track their performance. As one of the teachers in the video below says, digestible and actionable data about individual student performance can “make my job easier without doing my job for me.”

Software developers obsess over “use cases”—how people will use the tools they create. As the teachers in the videos above make clear, the use case for tools that help teachers put data to use in real-time is strong—but so are the challenges that need to be resolved to make data available, accessible, and actionable. To fully understand these challenges, developers should go straight to the primary users—teachers—and understand how they work with data, and then together find ways to make data work for them and their students.

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