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Don't Talk to Me About Data

We need a universal dashboard for student information.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's March 2013 digital edition.

Therese MageauA friend who works for a big ed tech company recently told me about their newest effort to report student data to help teachers make instructional decisions.

I sort of went ballistic. “Oh great! One more company piling up data on teachers and expecting them to use it!”

She didn’t deserve my tirade. Her company has the best intentions. But it seems to me that everything a student touches these days yields “data,” and somehow teachers are supposed to spend time with it and act on it.

I have sympathy. One of the great advantages of T.H.E. Journal going digital is that now we have reader metrics that let us know which stories are being read, how far into a story readers continue, which stories are being forwarded to colleagues, and how much time a reader spends on a page. And we also have reader data on more than a dozen e-newsletters—as well as Google Analytics on our website usage.

So we should be the most data-savvy editors around, right? Well, we are a lot more knowledgeable about reader behavior now than we could have ever been with a print magazine. But because there is so much data coming from disparate systems, it’s not always easy staying on top of it.

And if it’s a challenge for me to keep up, I can’t even imagine how hard it is for teachers, who have so much more data coming at them, with much higher stakes attached to it.

I am not dissing data. I was impressed by a recent New York Times story on how Netflix knew before it launched “House of Cards” (its original, made-for-streaming miniseries), that it was going to be a hit. They had the data: the success of British version of the show, Kevin Spacey’s download numbers, and the trackable following of the director David Fincher. As the Times media writer David Carr describes it, the certainty of the show’s success was as clear as a Venn diagram.

I can just hear education critics, or well-meaning friends, say, “Schools need to use data like Netflix does.” (Schools have already been told they need to personalize curriculum like Netflix personalizes entertainment.) Memo to friends and foes: Netflix has data analysis systems so that its executives aren’t looking at 12 different programs to figure out what’s working. Furthermore, the success of a student is a lot harder to predict than the success of a TV series.

But if we really want student data to be leveraged like it is at Netflix, somebody needs to create a universal, customizable dashboard for schools that works with any program, application, system. Anything a student touches. I’m not sanguine that this will happen—education, by constitutional mandate, is a local affair, and that fragmentation extends to the ed tech marketplace, where a thousand different companies compete and rarely collaborate.

But unless we give teachers an easy, actionable way to look at student data, we’re just going to continue this useless cycle of overwhelming them with statistics and then blaming them for inaction. That, my friends, is truly a house of cards.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at [email protected].