by Rebecca Merrett

How data analysis boosted the performance of Queensland school students

Feb 25, 20155 mins
Big DataEducation Industry

There’s no question that education plays a key part in Australia being able to compete globally, and for the CIO of Department of Education and Training in Queensland, Mark Hind, data analysis is what is going keep students’ academic performance up to scratch.

For the last decade, the department has been building up to enabling schools in the state to be completely data driven – from building a custom made central student portal, OneSchool, to tools that carry out data analysis. Only in the last couple years has Hind seen schools reap the benefits of this portal, which provides teachers with the data they need to achieve actionable insights.

“We went out to the teaching faculties and asked ‘What do you want out of this system?’ And they said ‘Imagine if’,” Hind said at the Gartner BI and Analytics Summit in Sydney this week.

“Imagine if we could personalise learning in a system of half a million kids, so every kid has a personal plan. Imagine if we could get academic performance data, school report card data, NAPLAN data, attendance and behaviour data, and [use] diagnostic tools and compare them altogether and see how kids are going,” Hind said.

The department has a “mega factory” of information with data points on 518,000 students and 70,000 staff across 1231 state schools. In its OneSchool portal, which holds digital student records, there are 1.3 million course and unit plans, 1.2 million report cards, and 6000 timetables.

The portal also has about 500,000 class dashboards for teachers to split, cut, shape and mould the data in any way they want. Hind said it was designed for the end user to orchestrate the data; not for IT to decide what to do with the data or information, as he is not a teacher who works closely with students.

“I don’t buy into the fact that we can get a system – and this is not a popular belief – that can do the full analysis of what students need,” he said.

“I value the teaching profession and I think they need to look at the data that’s put out in front of them, the information that’s cut in different ways and use their ‘neck top computer’ [brain] to make some sort of valued judgement as to what the data is saying.

“Information can give black or white positives or negatives, but without the analytical mind of the teacher over the top understanding the student, what’s happening at home and in the classroom, they [IT] actually miss some of that analysis.”

The dashboards also allow teachers to go granular with the data and do ‘micro experiments’, Hind said.

“We have allowed to do class groupings or cohort data. So we can say, ‘For those smart Year 8 maths kids, I want to track them with the smart Year 9 maths kids, and I want to report them differently so I can come up with a plan for maths excellence.’”

Hind gave an example of Forest Lake State High School in Queensland having a “significant” rise in students moving into the higher OP (overall points) bands of 1-15 in the last 18 months since it analysed student data to create cohorts. The OP bands assess where a student sits among a state-wide rank in their academic performance.

“They ploughed time and effort into understanding individual needs and creating individual learning plans based on those cohorts,” he said.

“Those teachers looking after a particular subject collected the data and interrogated it, made some inferences, thought about what it might mean, created come goals and targets, planned and implemented, assessed and reflected, and continued to do it all year.

“Where they saw a gap, they created another cohort. Where they saw a missing opportunity, they created another cohort. They assigned more teaching to it, with the same amount of teaching, no money lifted.”

Hind said the most interesting discovery was a decline in behaviour issues. The unintended consequence was students were more engaged, valued, and more involved in their learning though the cohort, he said.

Hind also wants to better assist new or casual teachers coming in contact with a class for the first time by having a quick analysis or up-to-date run down of where the class was last at with its learning activities, which students are struggling in the subject, and so on.

He also wants to keep parents better informed, as he is trialling a parent portal in about 100 state schools so they can receive mobile alerts when their child or children have misbehaved or broken school policy.

“You’ll be able to notify the school online if your kid is sick,” he added.

Australia’s ‘third world’ Internet connectivity

At the Gartner event, Hind also commented about the lack of adequate broadband infrastructure in remote parts of Queensland.

“We are probably a third world country when it comes to bandwidth. And we’ve got to guarantee a equal service to every site; give people the same education experience no matter where they are in Queensland.”

He said there are about 5000 students in the state who learn or do their schooling “on remote cattle stations in the middle of nowhere”, and therefore rely on good Internet connectivity for their education.

“The satellite is pretty good, but it just doesn’t work when it’s sunny, rainy, cloudy and windy. But that one good day a year when you can deliver that curriculum, they are doing pretty well,” he said sarcastically.

“We have got to deliver it over satellite with a six millisecond latency in the back of nowhere.”