When Less Is More: Designing for Education’s Data Overload

Opinion | Big Data

When Less Is More: Designing for Education’s Data Overload

By Hisham Anwar     Oct 22, 2018

When Less Is More: Designing for Education’s Data Overload

A Toronto-based hospital had a problem. Training scenarios in the emergency room had gone poorly because doctors and nurses talked over each other and gave conflicting directions. Treatments were botched. Patient outcomes suffered.

As sometimes happens within large organizations, the instinct of administrators was to engineer a solution from the top down. But, as it turned out, interviews with ER nurses led them to a faster and less costly solution. They learned that despite their best efforts, there was confusion on the ER floor. Lack of clarity about roles had given rise to conflicting directions and lost time. Armed with this insight, team leaders were simply assigned bright orange vests to indicate that they were in charge.

The problem-solving process deployed by the hospital is referred to as design thinking, a process rooted in empathy that starts with listening. In a way that often feels intuitive to educators, design thinking emphasizes the importance of asking questions and understanding the needs of users and their problems before implementing irrelevant solutions. But in an ironic twist, it is a process that often eludes educators when it comes to informing decisions.

The challenge stems, in part, from what is fast becoming data overload for school and district leaders, who struggle to make sense of data that is siloed, messy, and hard to find.

In recent years, districts have spent millions on the integration of disparate data systems. Interventions and assessments have moved to the cloud. Student information systems track and report on a multiplicity of variables. Most districts can now find granular data on a wide range of metrics from school nutrition to student behavioral patterns and beyond—yet the data overload dilutes actionable insights. So, while districts are often awash in data, they are starved for wisdom.

The blame lies, in part, at the feet of education entrepreneurs, whose instincts led them to serve up volumes of data in search of simple solutions to challenges that eluded educators for years. Rather than ask questions or define problems that schools are actually trying to solve, we have expected our users (e.g., teachers and district leaders with little time to spare) to somehow derive meaning from thousands of data points in a way that relates to their day-to-day challenges and opportunities.

It’s as though we expect the mere presence of data to present solutions. When answers fail to materialize, we start off in search of more or better data, rather than clearly defining the question being asked. And in our obsession to get data systems to “talk to each other,” we’ve lost sight of what we’d actually like them to say.

This is a problem mired in the vestiges of an No Child Left Behind-era accountability paradigm that fixated on the results of high-stakes tests, more so than instructional practice; outcomes, rather than early indicators that might suggest eventual results.

But a growing number of school districts are beginning to flip the script. It’s an approach enabled by the introduction of school quality and success indicators under the Every Student Succeeds Act that have more instructional relevance than NCLB-era mandates and mantras. District and school leaders now balance proficiency scores with other metrics such as chronic absenteeism rates or success indicators (like enrollment in advanced or remedial course offerings) that invite a richer reflection upon the components of a holistic education.

They’re starting not with the provisioning of data, but with defining the questions they are trying to answer. In the process, they’re learning that unlocking the potential of data-driven decisions requires not necessarily more data points, but rather a way to present relevant data to different roles in ways that are accessible and communicable.

In Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, school leaders are working to ensure that 80 percent of seniors are ready for college or a career by 2025. This requires that the district work to answer essential questions on teachers’ minds: “What are the unique challenges each student in our district experiences, and how can we objectively detect even the most subtle signs of risk before a student becomes disengaged?”

Using a design-thinking approach, Shelby County’s leaders put into place and mobilized a system directly mapped to answering these questions. Through targeted, real-time data on student performance that is easy for end-users to understand, teachers, principals, and administrators in the district are now better able to identify and intervene with necessary supports early and often.

Making sense of data isn’t easy. But districts like Shelby County are leading the way through design thinking by asking the right questions and defining just what problems they are facing. By letting data inform the answers within those parameters, they are designing impactful solutions that can better serve their students.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up