by George Nott

Catholic Education Western Australia to apply data science to school life

Jun 28, 2017
Big DataCloud ComputingEducation Industry

In industry there are countless examples of how data analytics have helped businesses gain insights into their operations, in order to find efficiencies, increase productivity and improve the experience of their customers.

An ambitious project by Catholic Education Western Australia is now bringing the same techniques to the classroom.

The technology, the will and the funding have, for the first time, aligned.

“It’s been happening in industry and in large organisations for some time, but it’s never really been affordable for education,” explains CEWA’s head of digital transformation Aidan McCarthy. “We’ve never been able to do what we’re doing. And we would struggle to be able to have done it 18 months ago from a technology perspective. We’re at a point in time where the organisation is ready for that change.”

Work has already started to bring the organisation’s 80,000 students, their parents and 12,000 staff will be brought onto a single Microsoft cloud platform, enabling them to access in-the-moment data and learning progress.

Soon, data scientists from Microsoft Learning and partner universities will also work on the amassed information in an effort to improve school outcomes and student experience.

“We want to go from big picture analytics and thinking about predictions around student graduation or school completion, to more moment in time, individual person sorts of recommendations,” explains Dr Cathy Cavanaugh, head of digital transformation for learning, leadership and research, “so that students leave being master-learners and understand really deeply how they learn so they can be successful as they move into the next stages of their lives.”

Taking the LEAD

When CEWA’s transformation project – called LEADing Lights, the LEAD stands for Learning, Engagement, Accountability and Discipleship – is complete, a typical student’s day could go something like this, CEWA says.

First thing in the morning they get notified of a classroom change via text message. On the bus on their way to school, they submit their homework via an online portal using their own device.

That morning they take place in a live debate with students from four other schools and later that day they watch a video tutorial in preparation for class the next day.

In the afternoon, they attend a lesson through a live video conferencing. That evening, stuck with homework, they post a question on CEWA’s mathematics Yammer site, to which an older child responds with a useful link.

“There are other elements of the portal that asks them about their learning goals and tracks the goals that they have as a learner. There are there ways for them to express their well-being. There are ways for them to get notifications and recommendations,” says Cavanaugh, formerly Microsoft’s director of teaching and learning, worldwide education.

All of this comes via a single sign-on, and is all backed with Microsoft, cloud-based tools: Office 365, Dynamics 365, and the Claned learning platform. “Their portfolio of schoolwork travels with them,” CEWA says. “And for the first time, they can track their learning to understand their progress and benchmark it against CEWA averages if they wish, putting them in charge.”

Teachers meanwhile take register, mark homework, compare results with others, and share lesson ideas, all within the portal.

Additionally for teaching staff, a ‘Personal Learning and Development’ system will help them achieve new competencies, aided by machine learning to profile their progress and ambitions, and suggest appropriate courses and certifications.

With marks, attendance and progress recorded within the system, parents – depending on the age-group of the child – are then able monitor their child’s progress in real time. They’ll also be able to pay for excursions, fees and charges online.

“The information enables parents to see, for the first time a holistic view of their child at school including well-being, things like 21st century capabilities, as well as the traditional academic,” Cavanaugh adds.

As part of the multi-year project which began this year, staff at CEWA’s 163 schools and colleges across the state have already been migrated to the Office 365 based system. Behind the scenes, attendance, reporting, marketing, HR, finance, facility management, strategic planning and project management have all been integrated into the single tool too.

Changing schools is made much simpler for students and staff, Cavanaugh says.

“When they do enter a new school they can be known very deeply before they arrive, as whole people. And then everyone in the school can be better prepared to work with those children,” she said.

“Over time we will build up rich insights about how technology best supports learning so that we can understand what works, do more of it and share it with others,” Cavanaugh says.

World-class learning

Catholic schools funding is the subject of an ongoing political maelstrom, and the sector in WA is anticipating cuts up to $3.5 million across the system next year.

Despite this, CEWA are pressing on with their initiatives. While there are significant cost savings of a unified IT landscape – schools are being told that, once implemented the funding requirement will be cost neutral within 18 months – a lot of LEADing Lights’ value will come from the data within the system.

Just as data analytics at scale provides a multitude of benefits in the private sector, CEWA is hoping for the same in its school system.

The single integrated platform will enable principals to gather real-time data on student performance and attendance, graduation and wellbeing and benchmark it against other schools, past years, system averages or WACE and NAPLAN statistics.

Not only will they see how they are tracking, but they can also investigate the impact of new initiatives to gauge success.

The work will also help improve pastoral care for students. For example if a child shows an unusual pattern of absence, or unexpectedly poor exam results, actions to assist them can be triggered.

CEWA has engaged with Microsoft Learning in athree-year global partnershipthat adds data science expertise to “support detailed and dynamic learning about learning”.

Other partnerships are being forged with universities to investigate specific areas.

“The partnerships that we’re developing will help us to understand the extent to which we’re successful from a teaching and learning perspective,” Cavanaugh explains.

“Like the effectiveness of the virtual school for students in remote cities, the effectiveness of the portals were designing and around our aboriginal student population and their success.

“It’s likely that there will be a range of other sorts of research opportunities that will arise. We expect to have different relationships with our research partners in that they can advance knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning, because of the data that we have available.”

The end game is a world-class Catholic education system where all students, staff and parents flourish, CEWA says.

As CEWA executive director Dr Tim McDonald explains: “Based on a proven foundation of Australian and global best practice, this digital transformation will empower all of us to reimagine the way we teach, learn and serve in order to deliver world-class learning experiences.”