We live in the information age. We live in a period where information has never been more abundant, while at the same time, more easily accessible. If I want to find out how to make cheesecake using Greek yogurt, I can find a recipe within seconds (here’s one, by the way – it’s delicious). If I want to improve my poker skills, I can watch thousands of hours of study videos where professionals dissect nearly every area of the game. If I want to get caught up on the latest world news, I turn not to my radio or television, but my community-driven news aggregation websites and podcasts.

But these are just examples of how I personally use the wealth of information as an individual. Entire industries have also been shaped by the recent boom in information quantity, quality, and processing power. The finance industry has changed from men in suits on Wall Street yelling at each other to specially designed computers crunching numbers using the latest financial models, often optimized to the millisecond. The operations industry has been so heavily optimized and automated that it’s tough to find something out of stock in Wal-Mart. Seriously, if you have the time, read up on how Wal-Mart and Amazon handle operations and logistics, it’s incredibly fascinating.

There are so many opportunities to analyze and find insights from the information that we have; so many ways that we can improve how our content is written, how our teachers teach, and how our students can succeed.

The education industry is no different. There are so many opportunities to analyze and find insights from the information that we have; so many ways that we can improve how our content is written, how our teachers teach, and how our students can succeed.

We should not be scared of data – we should be informed

You may have noticed that I wrote the entire first section without mentioning the word ‘data,’ simply because – in my mind – data and information are synonymous. And yet, the word leaves many with an unpleasant taste in their mouths. This may be driven by how some companies/agencies use the data that they collect, and the light in which the media portrays them in. Plus, having a blockbuster movie regarding the events surrounding Edward Snowden doesn’t help.

We should not be scared of data - we should be informed.Click to Tweet

For us here at Chalk, we believe that the entire industry should be more informed and encourage developing a deeper understanding of the information already present. With that being said, data security, privacy, and integrity still supersede all. That’s something that I want everyone to keep in mind as you read through these posts. None of what I’m about to write can be accomplished if these fundamentals are not upheld.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know first-hand what it’s like to be on the ground; to be an actual educator in a school where these changes are happening. I’ll also be the first to tell you that no one can predict how an individual, whether that’s a student, teacher, or the superintendent, will behave with 100% accuracy. Otherwise, Las Vegas wouldn’t exist. What we can do is surface information and highlights based on current and past behavior and overall industry trends.

No one can predict how an individual, whether that’s a student, teacher, or the superintendent, will behave with 100% accuracy.

But I’ll also tell you that teachers and administrators alike want to be more informed. They want to know more about what’s going on in the classrooms so that they can better serve their students. They know not only WHAT and WHEN, but also HOW and WHY? Data can provide some insights on all those questions so that they can make the best course of action based on their experience and all the information available.

Where are we now?

Some of you reading this may be wondering: “That’s a great vision and all, but how do we get there? What can we do today to get us moving in the right direction?”

Well, at least I hope some of you are wondering that.

Many educational institutions already have a plethora of information and data that can be used to generate quick, but incredibly impactful insights. Report cards, attendance, and class enrollment information are all pieces that are present in many SIS’s that school districts have today. Even simple visuals can be incredibly impactful with this data.

We can take a look at a quick example. Let’s see the overall report card grades by subject for one particular grade 7 student, Sally.

Here, we can see several things about Sally. First, we see that she has decreasing Science and Language Arts marks, and increasing Arts scores. Focus on those that are decreasing. Simple, right? Case closed?

Well, her Language Arts marks took a much sharper drop than Science. To try and figure out what’s going on, let’s take a look at her attendance records by month.

Huh… What happened in January? Why was Sally late for her morning classes all of a sudden? Well, it turns out, in this particular case, Sally moved over the break and had a longer commute to school. Due to this, she would sometimes be late for school in the morning if she missed the first bus. This, in turn, would cause her to miss half of the Language Arts subject (and be marked as late). Overall, this wasn’t a learning or in-class issue as originally thought, but a time management and attendance issue. The approach to remedying the effects becomes drastically different.

Overall, this wasn’t a learning or in-class issue as originally thought, but a time management and attendance issue.

Of course, the root cause of the effect (that Sally moved), was unable to be determined via data. However, her attendance and assessment information was able to be used to point her teacher in the right direction as to what it really was. Of course, this was a simple example, but one that showed how data was able to serve as guidance into what was truly going on. And the great part? Nearly every school has grading and attendance information in one form or another.

With great information comes great insights

This almost sounds like something Uncle Ben said, huh?

With online tools such as Chalk (come on, I have to plug the company I work for at least once) becoming more and more popular, the amount of information that teachers and administrators have at their disposal also significantly increases. Here at Chalk, we provide educators and administrators the tools to enhance all sections of the teaching feedback loop, from curriculum and content creation, to lesson planning and delivery, to student assessment and grading. See figure below. 

student data connecting dots in academics

Since we can tie all the information together at every stage, we can identify and answer not only WHAT areas to focus on for student success, but also WHY. We can answer the question ‘Is the student performing extraordinarily in certain areas, the teacher in their delivery of content, or is there something fundamentally differentiating with the curriculum content itself?’

Furthermore, we can use the curriculum, lesson, assessment, and attendance information to identify those students who may need a little nudge in the right direction.

Furthermore, we can use the curriculum, lesson, assessment, and attendance information to identify those students who may need a little nudge in the right direction. I know that many schools and districts have their methods of identifying students who may be ‘at-risk’ (and I write this next section cautiously because it’s a sensitive subject), but we can’t identify everyone through subjective methods alone. There are numerous teachers that I’ve personally spoken with who are very concerned that students may fall through the cracks, simply because there’s not enough attention or resources to help identify them.

But with data – including attendance, and summative and formative assessments – we can create models to assist in determining those who may need that extra little bit of help. By no means do I suggest that student models will be 100% accurate (especially not for teenagers =) ), but they will be able to surface those who may not necessarily have received the attention before. Again, this piece of information will simply serve as guidance so that those who can make the difference, the educator, can make the most informed decision.

Looking ahead

Above are just simple examples of how we can use current information to inform educators on what’s going on in their classrooms. But what if we had more, not just in quantity of data, but also quality? What if we can tie current, in-classroom information with historical trends for the student, class, school, and entire district? We can leverage the decades of research in statistics, modeling, and machine learning – research that so many other industries have embraced and reaped the benefits from – and combine it with the latest practices in pedagogy. We can use quantifiable results to identified areas of success and improvement in not only the student, but also the teachers, the curriculum, and system-level processes and structures. We can use data to change the educational landscape, one insight at a time.

We can use data to change the educational landscape, one insight at a time.Click to Tweet

Again, that’s all well and good, and we’re starting on the right path, but what more do we have to do to get there? Well, I hinted at this earlier in the post (ok, it was more than a hint), but we, as an industry, need to understand what can be done with the information that can be obtained, and begin the process of obtaining it. This means saving more data for generating insights not only for the present but also for the future. This means moving into a more digital space where this information can be generated and processed in an ongoing, automated fashion. No more generating one-off Powerpoint reports that people will forget about after its original presentation. Only after the data is available can we use it to make an impact.

We will be able to identify how students learn best and how to cater content and instruction to suit their unique styles. We can surface supplemental material to teachers, students, and even parents based on detected areas of enrichment or enhancement. We can enhance the student models to help identify those who may need a little more academic support who would otherwise fall through the cracks. The possibilities are (almost literally) endless. We just need to make the first few steps.

Yes, I know this sounds like it’s a bit down the road, and no, I don’t know the exact steps on how to get there, but I do know the first steps. Let’s discard our hesitation and truly embrace what data can do for our educators and students. Let’s create a system where data can be used to drive decisions, both large and small, inside and outside the classroom.

Let us look forward into the future: one where we can give teachers and educators all the information they need to make an informed decision on how to improve student success.

Forget the 21st Century. That’s been filled with slow, clunky tools that nobody seems to enjoy using. Let us look forward into the future: one where we can give teachers and educators all the information they need to make an informed decision on how to improve student success in a smart, yet simple manner. At the end of the day, it’s the folks in front of the students making the difference. We at Chalk can only help the best we can.