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Month: April 2018

Lost Information – the battle with data


Stuart Middleton


3 April 2018


T S Eliot, writing a long time ago, posed some questions. This was long before we were swamped with knowledge and I could ask Alexa, my little Amazon helper who sits on my study desk, almost anything I wished to know. He asked:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?[1]

I suggest that were he developing this line of thinking now, he might well have written a third question:

Where is the information we have lost in data?

I have long believed and many times written that there are probably three metrics that you need to understand most of the educational issues we face.

I have promoted three metrics that inform our success in a tertiary education institution: Get then in! Keep them on track! Get the through! Or, participation, retention and success. Of course this is very simple and risks being a little simplistic. But when the myriad studies, theses, publications, conferences and theories about just those three words is considered, you have to conclude that education systems have been remarkably unsuccessful in understanding what those three words actually mean, developing responses that lead to actions that are required to give purposeful effect to each of them let alone understand outcomes such as access and equity.

I once started to learn to play bridge which quickly turned into a weekly encounter with frustration. I asked the tutor to stop overloading us with information (thanks be to Alvin Toffler) and simply tell us the three things that we needed to know. This was greeted with much laughter but at the end of the session there came an admission that there just might be three, perhaps four, such critical understandings and that these would be delivered in due course. They never were! I was awash with data – rules, moves, protocols, customs, behaviours remained uninformed of the very things that I needed to nail if I was to make progress.

So what a joy it was to start reading a book that has emerged from the growing interest in the use of data in community colleges in the USA.[2] This book starts by setting out what the current data environment is and, in a nutshell, describes it as too much detail and too little action. They see educators “awash in data but not informed,” with “mindsets that seem to confirm views that “more data, more tables, more charts, more reports, more sophisticated analysis will do the trick”. They do not see a reflection in the material available that recognizes that “different users and audiences… which equire different types of reports and displays.”

In opening their discussion about a new model they challenge six assumptions:

  1. Community college faculty and staff are eager to engage in discussions about student performance.
  2. Just knowing there is a problem is enough to make a change.
  3. We know how to fix a certain type of problem.
  4. Administrators, faculty and staff are willing and eager to make improvements in student success.
  5. Organisations can change practices and policies when necessary.
  6. Studying everything leads to better decisions.

Their conclusions about these assumptions might not be an accurate reflection of the NZ setting but they see data as not yet serving well the needs of educators who have yet to embrace willingly the thrust to improve outcomes but there are encouraging developments, and they caution about the use of ‘big data’ and the huge number of tools being made available for manipulation. Theirs is a message of simplicity, accuracy and focus.

They also provide a useful template for that focus:

  • Is the information accurate?
  • What jumps out and why?
  • What are the themes?
  • Is comparison data available?
  • Does this information challenge current assumptions about this population?
  • What might be contributing to their success?
  • What might be detracting from their success?
  • Is this the data we need to make a decision?
  • What is the most important information?
  • What is missing?

A lot of this reflects the developments in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and California, all states which have pursued the pathways on which data leads to a crystallisation of the key pressure points and some relatively simple responses.

Must move on to Chapter 2 now – I face the rest of the book with enthusiasm.


[1] T S Eliot “Choruses from ‘The Rock’ – 1934, 1.The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven

[2] Phillips, Brad C. and Horowitz, Jordan E. (2017) Creating a Data-Informed Culture in Community Colleges: A New Model for Educations, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA.

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