How Data Can Support the Paradigm Shift in Education

Posted by Sarah SingerO


If you work in a K12 agency, life will never be the same. I want to explain why I believe this to be the case and how K12 organizations can best prepare from a data reporting standpoint. I formulate these opinions from a blend of personal experience that crosses multiple sectors and disciplines. I worked for Portland Public Schools in Oregon as a Senior Director (where I spent 9 years) and am now Head of Customer Success at Hoonuit. Prior to these roles, I spent 5 years in management consulting in the fields of strategy and change management. The latter field, helping organizations effectively manage change, often brought on by external stimuli, appears especially relevant right now as we experience a pandemic that has upended education delivery models the past few months. 

Our World Now

As Head of Customer Success at Hoonuit, I have the awesome opportunity to talk to countless K12 organizations – some are state agencies serving hundreds of thousands of students and others small districts serving fewer than 10,000 students. Regardless of their size, when the pandemic first began, districts and states were operating in crisis management mode. For example, millions of students rely on school for their daily meals. How are we going to feed the children, K12 organizations asked?  In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we were operating at a very low level. Next came how to graduate students, how to handle grading, and how to maintain some type of learning, even if it meant re-teaching the same content from the previous semester.

My experience is that districts are now beginning to move beyond crisis management and into a more strategic, forward-thinking mindset. Despite this, schools still do not know exactly how they will re-open in the fall. One district representative suggested that perhaps they might not open in the fall, given the rate of infections still present. I talked to other districts who may open with modified scheduling. By rotating days having large numbers of students stay home to learn remotely one day while another set attends in person. One state agency suggested that they were assuming that schools in fact would remain closed for in-person learning next fall as new waves of infections re-emerge. 

Meanwhile, teachers, students and parents are getting more accustomed to online learning and as a result, the infrastructure to support this type of learning is rapidly being developed. Districts have had to wrestle with the digital divide with more urgency. Ensuring access to a connected device for every student is no longer a nice-to-have, it has become a must-have. Teachers are learning how to engage with online curriculum, enhancing their digital learning skills. State agencies are providing extensive professional development to school leaders related to running blended learning models – for example, the Tennessee State Department of Education is providing this type of PD to over 700 principals. The adversity brought on by a pandemic has forced disruptive innovation in an industry not known for its rapid change. One such change is that blended learning will become ubiquitous. To be clear, blended learning combines classroom learning with online learning, in which students can, in part, control the time, pace, and place of their learning. I’m not suggesting AT ALL that the value of interpersonal connection that a teacher brings can or should ever be replaced. This is why blended as opposed to online learning is the key to the future. 

The barriers that were once present to implementing online learning are not nearly as significant. Online curriculum has undeniable strengths. It can be personalized to meet student needs in a very scalable way. It can free up teacher time to focus on individual students who might need more support. For some schools, especially those in rural areas with smaller enrollment, online curriculum is the only way they can financially resource certain high school courses, such as Calculus 2, Advanced Placement, world languages, career and technical education, and robust electives. As blended learning becomes more prevalent, the notion of “seat time” as one gauge for student learning becomes less relevant. The prevailing notion that students learn in a set schedule in a set place also begins to dissipate. This alone has far-reaching ramifications that could potentially upend the traditional K12 student experience.

Planning for the Future

If you buy into my assumption that blended learning is here to stay and will be relied upon more frequently, then read on. Here’s how I suggest you begin thinking about the challenge from a data perspective. 

  1. Collecting and reporting data is more important than ever before: Visibility into student engagement and learning and social emotional well-being is much harder when you literally cannot see the students. Collecting and capturing data is more important than ever before. How will you know if students are engaged? How will you know if they are learning? If they aren’t learning, why? Could it be an access issue, as they don’t have access to a device or Wi-Fi? Are they having trouble logging on? Are they even logging in? For how long? Do ELL students appear to be having different types of challenges than non-ELL students? How are students with disabilities fairing? How are talented and gifted students doing? Are certain curriculums yielding better results? Are parents equipped to support online learning? Are teachers engaging as expected? If not, why not? These are just some of many, many questions one could ask.
  2. Flexibility in data reporting platforms is more important than ever before. Several solutions out there are well designed and research-based but lack flexibility; they are geared toward solving one or two primary predetermined use cases. These are unprecedented times. You will have needs and uses cases that you cannot predict right now. I guarantee this! And as a result, you will need a data platform that can be customized by YOU, to report entirely new data domains, along with the new metrics that go along with these domains. Locking yourself into a regimented solution would be short-sighted. When reaching out to vendors, you should be asking them these questions:
    • Is the solution flexible to address a wide-ranging set of education challenges and configurable to meet our specific needs?
    • Does the solution support a comprehensive, expandable data model to allow importing data from any data source?
    • Can the solution manage historical data as well as current data?
    • Will advanced data quality measures be employed with rules that can be modified to our organization’s data needs?
  3. Seamless data interoperability is more important than ever before. Inefficient data integration can have a range of adverse effects inside and outside the classroom, as it often precludes educators’ timely access to the data they need to make effective, well-informed decisions. This issue has only become more pressing as the use of online learning tools continues to grow. All of your systems should be seamlessly exchanged and aligned.

At Hoonuit, we are on a mission to empower educators and communities with knowledge and insights to improve student outcomes. Over the coming weeks and months we are hosting a virtual discussion series, Infinite Insights, designed to offer education leaders a space to share their data successes, collaborate, and ideate. We invite you to join us and dig deeper into these topic areas, share agency stories, and explore the role data can play in our evolving education landscape.

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