What do we talk about when we talk about ‘data’ in schools?

The increased presence of digital technologies in education means that ‘data’ is implicated in all aspects of contemporary schooling. This can be seen as a cyclical process. On one hand, data drives all of the digital technologies now being used in education. At the same time, the increased use of digital technologies in education results in the increased production of more data. Digital technologies also facilitate the increased capacity for schools to collect, compute and circulate their own analyses of data. While it might often go unnoticed, data is an integral part of the digitised school.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, when talking to teachers, administrators, students, or principals about ‘data’ in their school, people might well be referring to very different things. In the course of our research, then, we have noticed at least four distinct forms of digital ‘data’ in schools that people might be aware of and/or interested in.

First, is the increasing use of system-level digital data as a form of education governance.  The prominence of standardised measures such as PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN over the past twenty years is now prompting the emergence of what can be termed ‘Algorithmic Governance’ and ‘Synthetic Governance’. This describes the use of data to underpin system-level governance – often in the form of ‘big data’ analytics and AI solutions that are developed by tech industry in partnership with governments and corporate strategy consultants and professional services providers such as Ernst & Young, KPMG, PwC, McKinsey and Bain.

This form of ‘datafication’ is obviously important to talk about, but the specific focus of our DSS research is the use of data at the individual school level. Here, then, there are three other distinct forms of ‘datafication’ to consider.

Perhaps most prominently, is the ways in which digital technologies are becoming a key part of what schools refer to as ‘data-driven decision making’ (DDDM). The idea of DDDM has spread from the US to other countries over the past twenty years as part of the growing push for teachers to engage in ‘evidence-based’ practice. This has become understood to involve data being generated within the school and individual classrooms – usually by managers or teachers – to inform their decision-making. This is local data that is generally focused on intra-school processes, and is primarily what most schools understand as ‘data’, and are most used to engaging with and talking about.

Over the 2000s and 2010s, teachers would often bemoan the pressure for them to be collecting data from their classes, and then be seen to make use of. Now, a range of digital applications and products are marketed to take care of this – from simple student surveying and ‘quiz’ software through to more sophisticated classroom monitoring systems. In this sense, ‘data’ is often understood by teachers as anything that informs their practice.

However, tellingly, this is not the ‘datafication’ that a lot of academic discussion in the ‘critical data studies’ space is interested in (ourselves included). More specifically, then, ‘data’ in schools also relates to the ‘trace data’ that is generated by the use of digital technologies. Here, two addition forms of ‘data’ arise. On one hand, is the ‘trace data’ generated from official systems and learning platforms which is deliberately used to drive (mostly commercial) products in schools to provide some sort of analysis and feedback of student performance. This includes the various forms of ‘learning analytics’, pupil dashboards and ‘personalised learning’ tools that make use of trace data to infer insights about people and processes in education.

However, on the other hand we need to remain mindful of the trace data generated routinely from the many other devices, applications, software and systems used in classrooms and school. This data is not used to infer insights about learning and students. Indeed, schools mostly ignore or are not conscious of this data. Nevertheless, this data is often extracted and used by technology developers to improve products, and/or sometime sold on to third parties. Indeed, the re-use of data is a key element of why many digital education products remain ‘free’ for schools to use.

In this sense, one of the main conclusions from our DSS project is a very simple one – academic researchers, policy-makers, business interests, tech companies, administrators, school leaders, and teachers are often talking about very distinct and different forms of ‘data’ within schools and school systems.