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Pandemic exposes difficulty of data management in education

Limited resources and a shift to remote learning have shown the inequalities across school districts when it comes to data management and the negative impact this can have.

Education revolves around student success and optimizing the learning process, but in the midst of uncertainty and a data deluge, educators and school districts as a whole are struggling to keep up with the use of data management in education.

Administrations are seeking as many data points as possible to see how their system succeeds and where it comes up short, but managing all this data can be too much for smaller school districts. With a remote approach to learning forced upon many schools, finding the balance between data collection, student outreach and meeting education goals has become a losing game.

Why is data in education?

The goal for educators has always been to transfer important knowledge to students in an effective way. Through tracking test scores, teacher reviews and numerous other data points, administrators can shape the next school year to flex strengths and whittle down flaws.  

"Data plays an integral role in today's higher education system," said Joe Diamond, CEO of All Campus, a higher education marketer. "Anonymous aggregate data can be used across both programmatic development and the student lifecycle to drive performance."

The goal is always to produce a successful student, and educational data collection helps schools meet this goal. Many factors go into getting a student from the first day of school to graduation, and getting the formula right for each individual is an endless struggle. This year, that struggle has gotten even more difficult.

"Due to the pandemic and the increase in virtual schooling, institutions are struggling to provide students with optimal digital experiences because they lack full visibility across their departments," said Mike Anderson, co-founder and CTO of Tealium, a software company. "Now that rich data is on hand, institutions need to assemble and orchestrate it properly to reap the benefits."

While schools face new challenges with the pandemic, the main struggle with data management in education remains an old one: a lack of resources.

Distinct district data limitations

Kelly J. Calhoun Williams, a vice president analyst at Gartner, said the people working in smaller school districts are often stretched thin and unable to commit proper time to the IT and data side of education. While the pandemic has made reaching students and ensuring that they are learning a difficult proposition, it's made data management even more difficult for small districts.

"These districts are going to be in a money crisis -- with a capital C -- for the next two to three years because of the […] impact on the economy," Williams said. "They're trying to hold it all together with Band-Aids and string here."

Larger districts are feel the crunch from the pandemic and the rapid increase in data collection from students in a digital school environment. But they are in a better position because of their larger pool of resources.

"[Larger school districts] typically have an IT leader, or it could be a CIO or a tech director," Williams said. "And that person is usually tasked at the district level with running the data management system."

Being able to have a specific individual or department handle data gives a school district an advantage because it frees up other employees to focus on their own tasks and allows them to spend time on improving students' education. Any district that can commit the sufficient resources to gathering student data and analyzing it can improve their chances at understanding the effectiveness of their education process.

Teachers have to face a new approach while maintaining effectiveness in a world of unknowns. For years, teachers have used learning management systems to maintain and analyze certain data points, such as test scores and attendance. But now they need to track student engagement as well as homework and exams. On top of this, there is the added layer of privacy issues when it comes to moving everything online.

"This year's unique hybrid learning environment brings a slew of new data privacy concerns for students and their parents," said Michael Helmbrecht, COO at Lifesize, a video conferencing provider.

Using the data for students

For districts that can take advantage of the data, getting the right insights can greatly improve a student's experience.

On the ground level, teachers track how individual student success is affected by certain texts and teaching methods. Above them, administration can measure student success in different courses and with different teachers. Data management in education can lead to a more personalized education experience for students.

More and more data has become available, and administrations want as much of it as possible to ensure their schools -- and more importantly, their students -- reach their potential. This has led to a data evolution for educational organizations.

"When it comes to the use of data in the education space, most people think of the data that's on an application for admission: like work history, education history and test scores," Diamond said. "Of course, schools can -- and do -- use these, but it's far more beneficial for institutions to use data to improve the experience for students by fine-tuning their programs to meet student and employer needs."

Understanding the individual needs of students must become a priority for districts that can afford to dedicate time to data management and analysis.

"Each student is at a unique spot in their education journey," Anderson said. "Meaning it's critical for schools, educators and administrators to successfully unify student data from multiple channels in order to improve the education experience both in real-time and non-real-time experiences."

Data management in education has also allowed schools to help students during the pandemic. School districts store more data on students than just test scores and homework completion. They have home addresses and family incomes. Collected data lets schools not only meet students' needs on an educational level, but on other levels as well. Once schools shut down, many districts distributed resources such as hot spots and free lunches to students who needed them.

Data use still has room to grow in education, especially at the K-12 level, but the pandemic has helped schools find holes in their data management strategies that they can improve over time.

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