Developing people’s ‘Data Imaginations’

Enhancing the use of digital data within schools clearly involves exploring how everybody within a school (staff and students) might improve the ways in which they ‘do’ data. This involves basic data awarenesses of what digital data is, the various ways it is used, and the consequences that can result. This also involves people’s data skills – i.e. knowing how to interpret data visualisations, knowing how to access digital data, and perhaps even managing and manipulating data. Taken as a whole, these competencies are sometimes referred to as ‘data literacy’ or ‘data wrangling’. While they might sound straightforward enough, these skills and understandings cover a lot of ground – from basic numeracy to more advanced data-handling and statistical skills, and even coding and programming knowledge.

One additional dimension that we are interested exploring in our research is what might be termed people’s ‘data imaginations’. In a basic sense, this refers to people’s ability to ‘think otherwise’ about how they might be engaging with digital data – reimagining ways of working with data, and thinking what might be done differently. This is more difficult than it sounds. While an individual might be fairly competent in engaging with digital data along the set lines in which they are accustomed, it is often difficult to ‘know what you don’t know’ – particularly when it comes to digital data practices that are otherwise online and out-of-sight.

In this sense, it is understandable that many students and staff have rather limited imaginations about what else might be done with data.  For example, many teachers’ engagement with digital data is confined to very restricted modes of data engagement – for example, default data visualisations and data-handling protocols familiar from popular applications such as Excel and/or their school’s learning management systems. When asked to imagine alternate models of data use, it can prove difficult to think beyond familiar data tropes such as line graphs, dashboards and filters.

Similarly, many students find it difficult to think outside of the limited messages and mantras about ‘digital footprints’ and ‘data-protection’ that they have been bombarded with since their early years of schooling. Indeed, students’ talk about digital data often reverts quickly back to the norms implicit in calls for users to engage with‘cyber-safety’, ‘internet awareness’ and ‘e-safety’ classes. The onus here is for individuals to take responsibility for managing the ‘risks’ of digital data, to remain ‘safe’ and work to make ‘better’ personal use of data. Rarely, then, will students (or staff) be able to reimagine data use in more collective, more open or more subversive terms.

This is not to criticise students or staff at all … there are far more important things in life to be looking to improve than one’s engagement with digital data. Neither should people’s familiar data practices and approaches be dismissed out-of-hand. However, our project remains interested in supporting students, teachers and staff to begin to think differently and defiantly about what digital data might be capable of doing for them. This is where the notion of a ‘data imagination’ comes to the fore.

In a basic sense, we are using the term ‘imagination’ to refer to the capacity to move beyond what we already know, to see things from other points of view, and to extend  our experiences and thoughts in ways that might result in new insights, ideas and aspirations. As Murray Hunter (2013, p.114) puts it: “imagination decomposes what already is, replacing it with what could be”.

There are various different types of ‘imagination’ – ‘strategic’, ‘emotional’, ‘creative’ and even ‘critical’ imaginations. Our own evocation of a ‘data imagination’ draws inspiration from C. Wright Mills’ (1959) notion of ‘the sociological imagination’. Here, Mills talks of the need to view any facet of society in terms of individual, structural and historical issues. So, this points us firmly toward seeing digital data not just in terms of one’s own personal experiences, but also in terms of shared issues and social structures that might be common to everyone in a similar situations, contexts and cultures.

Supporting students and staff to imagine the use of school digital data along these extended and expanded lines will not be easy. However, we are keen to explore what might be achieved by getting people thinking differently about data – if only for a moment or two. This will involve getting people excited about different forms of digital data, different ways of organising and engaging with digital data, and even different ways of talking about the roles that digital data play in influencing everyday school life … watch this space!