Why we need to talk more about data (in education)

Some of the main findings emerging from our research relate to the relatively limited ways in which our schools are engaging with data. This is also evident in the limited ways that school staff, leadership and students imagine data playing a future part in supporting, guiding and directing what goes in inside the school. 

School conceptualisation of ‘data’ are shaped by the obvious pressures of ‘external’ data generated about school performance (examination results, attendance data and so on). Other than these ‘big ticket’ data points, we are finding a rather ‘teacherly’ approach to how data is being used within schools – mostly on an ad hoc basis to confirm teacher decisions and/or coerce student engagement.

This preference to keep data ‘at arm’s length’ is particularly noticeable when it comes to data that is generated through digital technologies. Despite the abundance of digital applications, systems and devices within these schools, the promises and/or fears attached to ‘datafication’ seem to feature only faintly in the consciousness of most staff and students.

This might all be seen as a positive response. Perhaps the structures, bureaucracies and institutional logics of schooling are robust enough to repel the most harmful aspects of datafication – the ‘real-time’ tracking and profiling of students, the anticipatory regimes of predictive analysis, the descent into algorithmic governance? It has been well noted how the ‘grammar of schooling’ can often ‘tame’ attempts to reform schools and classroom practices. To paraphrase Larry Cuban, perhaps our current findings reflect a simple case of ‘Datafication meets classroom: classroom wins’?

On the other hand, it seems important that schools become more aware of the ways in which datafied processes and logics are increasingly implicit in the technologies that are now being used in schools, as well as the ways that this data is being used at school system and jurisdiction levels.

For example, regardless of individual school’s limited interest in data-driven analytics and logics, these technologies are certainly beginning to inform the ways in which governance of school systems is being reimagined and reconfigured – what Karen Yeung describes as a shift from ‘New Public Management’ to ‘New Public Analytics’. As such, our schools need to be well aware of the various ways in which they are likely to be soon subject to the ‘data gaze’, as policymakers and governments foster ambitions of digital automation and data-driven logics as a means of school governance and managing ‘risk’.

In another sense, our schools also need to be aware of the ways in which digital data is now a central way in which the IT industry imagines schooling. In short, the logics of datafication are now embedded in the digital applications, platforms and systems that schools are procuring and implementing. Even if our schools have little interest in data-profiles, real-time dashboards and data-driven ‘nudges’, such features are nevertheless being brought into their classes through digital education products that are constantly being picked-up  by staff and students. 

Whether they realise it or not, our schools are increasingly entwined with the logics of digital data and datafied schooling. As such, schools need to develop ways of raising awareness, interest and imagination around this aspects of contemporary education reform. We believe that datafication is not something that should be simply ‘done to’ schools. We believe that there is value in working with school communities to work out ways of ‘doing data differently’. However, for this to happen, everyone within a school community needs to be attuned to the fact that they are ‘doing data’ in the first place!