“It’s a particular version of the truth” … the difficulties of establishing school data systems as a ‘single source of truth’ (2/2)

We have written previously about the ideal of establishing a ‘single source of truth’ (SSOT) as part of a school’s data management strategy – i.e. a central ‘master’ data system that ensures a consistency of data across the school.

Like other ‘tech’ terminology and jargon, the idea of system being a ‘single source of truth’ has crept into mainstream school conversations around data and technology. For example, Jennifer Clutterbuck (2016) has noted the prevalence of the phrase when talking to educators about Queensland’s state-wide ‘OneSchool’ data platform – almost as if the phrase had been taken-up as an unofficial marketing slogan.

The everyday appropriate of a technical term like SSOT is understandable. This is a phrase that resonates with the layperson, and allows school leaders and other non-expert educators to talk more freely with technical staff and IT vendors. Dropping these sorts of terms into conversation is an easy way of appearing to at least have a semblance of technical know-how.

Nevertheless, when talking with teaching staff during our fieldwork it quickly becomes apparent that speaking about a ‘single source of truth’ also taps into some of the tensions implicit in deploying technical principles to the messy social contexts of the school.

For example, teachers in Northlands expressed scepticism over the capacity of their school systems to ever consistently reflect what was going on in the school. They recounted how they have recently been encouraged to log notes about incidents in the ‘pastoral’ area of the school’s main learning system (SchoolWide) that could be kept as a matter of record. As these teachers described, any information being inputted by teachers into this system was inevitably partial:

[Teacher 1]: the school’s trying to discourage email because then there’s no permanent record as there is in SchoolWide.  So, a Head of House can then do a search at the end of the week on a person and up comes all the notes.

[Neil]: So SchoolWide is the school’s ‘single source of truth’?

 [Teacher 1]: Well, … probably more stuff happens by email than happens by SchoolWide.

[Teacher 2]: So [SchoolWide] is a – it’s a particular version of the truth … missing a whole lot of probably smaller stuff.  So major things tend to end up there. You know – ‘someone punched someone else’ … sitting alongside plenty of things like ‘they didn’t do their homework on Tuesday’ … but probably not a lot of stuff that’s in between. So, the trivial gets on there okay, and the serious gets on there okay … but I wouldn’t think it’s a proper snapshot of really building up a picture of a student.