The Value of School Data

Mining knowledge with a data warehousing pioneer.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Shawn BayWith 13 state education agencies, 4800 districts and nearly 20 million students served, the people behind eScholar know something about collecting and using education data to improve student outcomes. Shawn Bay, eScholar’s founder and CEO, is one of the originators of data warehousing. He deals daily in terms of data quality issues, data sources and applying data to improve education. While his company has provided business intelligence technologies to Fortune 100 companies, since 1997 they’ve assembled a dedicated team focused exclusively on the challenges within education. Here Shawn discusses controversies in data use, privacy, data collection and what’s ahead for school data.

Victor: Just looking number-wise, eScholar is one of the big players in managing education data. There is some “data use” controversy swirling around. How does that impact you?

Shawn: You are right, since 1997, when I entered this industry, there has always been concern, legitimate I might add, about how data are collected, how data are used and how they are protected. These are all very important issues and have been brought more to the forefront

In a way, these issues have given our industry an opportunity to show the value of our work.

as the use of education data has expanded. I’ve always believed that public debates on such critical topics are healthy, and I think that the current controversy has been helpful in ensuring all of us remain focused on these issues. In a way, these issues have given our industry an opportunity to show the value of our work. In the end, I hope that the general public and other stakeholders see that educators have been deeply concerned about these issues for a long time, and have been, for the most part, very diligent in putting in place policies to protect students and avoid the misuse of information.

Victor: Your thoughts on student privacy?

CREDIT eScholarShawn: This is a very important issue and deserves attention. For eScholar, this is not a new concern at all. Our customers are all education agencies, local, state and federal, and student privacy is literally the number one concern for all of them. This is a topic that must continue to be addressed before we can even begin to talk about how information can be used to help improve education.  In our industry, our first step in planning and implementation of any data system must be to alleviate this concern

We make sure every member of our staff understands the importance of maintaining privacy and ensuring information security and that they also implement the correct procedures for doing so. Every eScholar employee is required to review and pass the test on FERPA’s privacy and data security policy every year, including me! Maintaining student privacy is one of our key responsibilities and we take it very seriously.

Victor: There was a class action suit filed against companies that sell student data for marketing purposes — your thoughts?

Shawn: At eScholar we never sell any data, in any form. Our revenue comes from the state agencies that own the data. Maintaining our focus on meeting our customers’ requirements and guidelines – among which data security is at the top of the list – creates a very strong incentive to make sure we protect data. Anything different would certainly be suicidal for our business model.

Victor: There is some backlash against the whole idea of collecting and using data in education, what’s your view?

Shawn: The concerns regarding student privacy are very legitimate and are key drivers behind the backlash. At the same time, when it comes to data and technology, we can all agree that many forms of data can be used as valuable information that is extremely powerful in helping students get the best possible education. We can clearly see a similar concern and practice in other industries where data is crucial, for example, in health care. Most people understand that it is vital for your health care professionals to have access to highly personal data about you. It is also essential that these professionals share this information with one another in order to help you in the most coordinated and effective way.  I think that most people understand that educators are also responsible professionals who can and do use data and information responsibly.

Victor: What’s ahead?

Shawn: One of the most exciting trends we see emerging is the ability to personalize education for each individual student. Of course, teachers have been personalizing their approach to individual students since the beginning of teaching, but over the years, the prevailing industrial model for education and the focus on standardized assessments has made this more difficult. Now, by providing each teacher with information about the strengths and goals of each student, it is possible to provide personalized attention on a bigger scale. This is just one example of the value of data. I agree that we need to fully mitigate the risks, but delivering this value to students is essential to making education as effective as possible for each one of the millions of students in the U.S.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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