Big Data in Education: Researchers’ Responsibilities

By Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP)

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While big data’s growing influence has impacted our lives across a spectrum of issues, it also has created many questions and concerns, particularly among education researchers.

Big data allows researchers to uncover patterns in data that might be otherwise invisible. This has led to several powerful advances, such as better treatments for disease, improvements in agriculture, and more timely and effective responses to natural disasters. The benefits of big data have even been highlighted in popular media, such as in the movie Moneyball, which dramatizes how the pioneering use of large datasets helped a general manager assemble a winning baseball team.

But the rise of big data has also prompted many to note its potential negative consequences. Within education, researchers have identified not only benefits to using big data, but also legitimate concerns. As they do with all data, education researchers have a responsibility to focus on both the integrity of their research using big data and on clear communications about this research to the public. Further, their communications with the public should focus not just on the research itself and its useful possibilities, but also on the precautions they are taking to ensure that the rise of big data does not negatively affect the education community.

Big data, defined

The term “big data” refers to very large and complex datasets—those datasets that have been described as “defying traditional data-processing applications” (National Academy of Education, 2017). Modern technologies allow us to capture information in previously unforeseen ways and transform it into digital data. This has resulted in datasets that are much larger and more complicated than anything seen before. From a research standpoint, big data changes data collection from an often lengthy and painstaking process to one that can happen nearly automatically, given the right connections to sources.

Big data in education: improving teaching and learning

Big data in education tends to fall into two major categories: administrative data and learning process data. Combining digital data from these two areas in innovative ways can allow researchers to identify patterns or correlations that may otherwise go unnoticed.

  • Administrative data can be demographic, behavioral, and achievement data and may include items such as attendance records, transcripts, and test scores.
  • Learning process data are continuous records of students’ behaviors and may include online assessments, keystrokes, or time latencies (e.g., the time it takes a student to respond to a question).

Innovative data analyses can lead to useful solutions to problems in schools and classrooms, uncover potential inequities in learning opportunities, and zero in on students’ needs in ways that reveal how to personalize learning more effectively. The overarching goal of this data collection and analysis is to expand possibilities for teaching and learning—including how to meet individual students’ needs.

Big data in education: legitimate concerns

Education researchers have raised some legitimate concerns about big data. While they recognize that big data has many exciting possibilities, researchers have also identified some potential problems with its use—or misuse. These concerns tend to fall into three main categories: misinterpretation, inappropriate use, and data privacy and security.

  • Misinterpretation concerns center on the possibility that studies using big data may be misunderstood by readers—especially if the studies are distilled or simplified before reaching the public—and that these misinterpretations could lead to inaccurate decisionmaking.
  • Inappropriate use concerns suggest that the public nature and accessibility of some big data may lead to people using the data in ways that were not intended and that defy accepted research standards.
  • Data privacy and security concerns are based on concerns that individuals’ personal information may not be properly protected, which could lead to data breaches or other inadvertent disclosures of private information.

As the education field continues to move toward greater use of big data, each of these issues should be specifically and consistently addressed. This can be accomplished through strong data governance, research standards, and other precautionary measures.

Researchers’ responsibilities: communication with the public

Education researchers must think not just about the research on big data, but also about how the public is receiving and reacting to this research. Public discussion of big data is frequently negative and inaccurate. Unlike the measured considerations of big data presented in academic articles, much of the communication about education-related big data to the public has encouraged skepticism and fear. It is not surprising that many parents and other stakeholders have developed negative views, given the frequent headlines that tout the “big dangers” of big data. The public less frequently encounters news that describes the potentially positive aspects of this education information or the clear standards that are in place to protect the privacy of personal information.

At the same time, researchers should work to ensure that members of the education community understand the legitimate concerns about big data and what we can all do to avoid or mitigate problems that may arise from misinterpretation, inappropriate use, and data privacy and security issues. Walking the fine line between explaining the intricacies of this difficult topic and communicating concisely and clearly is something education researchers must strive to master.

Big data is indeed a problem if it is used ineffectively, inappropriately, or by individuals without a requisite level of comprehension of the complexities of the subject. But that is true of all research data. Data, in various forms, can reveal that something has happened, that a phenomenon exists, or that variables appear to have a relationship, but data cannot on their own reveal why. It is the responsibility of researchers—especially those in the public sphere—to provide the lenses that make research relevant and comprehensible to varied audiences, from parents and teachers to administrators and elected officials.

It is important for education researchers to make clear that they are using the same stringent research standards for big data analysis that they have adhered to with previous types of data. Additionally, they must communicate to the public that they are regularly discussing the potential hazards of big data and routinely updating methodologies and security protocols as projects and analyses become increasingly complex. The clearest path to public trust in the research process is via straightforward and detailed communication.

Deep and Shallow Work: Why Both Are Brain Essentials

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Think about some businesses or organizations you have visited recently. Did the employees working there display a commitment to quality? You can likely remember instances when you witnessed extreme quality—or, unfortunately, the opposite. How do great employees do great work? One of our QIP core values—committing to quality—involves two very different types of work. It turns out that both types are essential to the human brain’s ability to be productive.

Deep work produces quality

The scholar Cal Newport coined the term “deep work” to refer to distraction-free, cognitively demanding work. In his book Deep Work, he cites evidence that many workers are continuously distracted by email, text alerts, phone calls, social media, and clickbait temptations, and have trouble finding sustained time to think deeply.

Consider whether you engage in deep work, for around 90 minutes, without distraction, on a regular basis. If so, that’s great. If not, Newport has some recommendations:

  • Change your phone notification settings.
  • Find a work environment that minimizes disruptions.
  • Schedule deep work sessions into your day.

QIP Program Manager Kris Dunman, for example, protects her deep thinking time because attending to tasks such as emails, phone calls, and meetings, while very important, sometimes prevents her from accomplishing deep work. She marks calendar time slots as busy when she needs to focus on specific projects. She says, “I aim to respond quickly to colleagues. However, phone calls and emails can make it difficult to accomplish work that requires focus. Fortunately, I can rely on team members who help to make sure our projects balance responsiveness with time for deep thinking.”

Don’t skimp on shallow work

Newport notes that the human brain can sustain only about two deep work sessions per day. More than this on a regular basis will exhaust your brain’s daily capacity for deep work—and you risk burnout. What Newport terms “shallow work” plays an important role in helping our brains recover from deep work sessions, as well as process the problems we were tackling in those sessions. Therefore, email, text messaging, and Internet surfing can have an important place in our lives—so long as shallow work is not all we do.

In a New York Times article about the value of “wasted” time, Lisa Belkin writes, “Over the years I have come to see that the hours away from the writing are the time when the real work gets done . . . a paragraph turns itself this way and that in a corner of my brain even while my fingers are buying books on Amazon.com.”

Deep vs. shallow

Reflect on how much deep versus shallow work you tend to do each day, or each week. If the balance seems off—you are either working deeply too often and burning out, or shallowly too often and feeling unable to concentrate—strive to gain the necessary balance. Finding time for both deep and shallow work is just one way you can enhance the quality of your outputs on the job. We find that striving to keep this balance helps us stay true to that particular QIP core value. Indeed, our commitment to quality runs so deep that we named our company after it.

Crafting Core Values with Employee Input

Standard operating procedures are critical to the efficiency of most organizations. But real success in business (and life) also requires a thorough understanding of one’s values.

In 2017, QIP had been in business for more than a decade, and we knew intuitively what we stood for and how we engaged in work activities. In addition, we had many written documents that codified different aspects of our business—a website, an employee handbook, and marketing materials. We also had years of experience in assisting clients, hiring employees, and managing a growing team. However, QIP had not yet established its core values.

Staff knew that QIP had many informal values that we acted upon daily, but these values weren’t formally expressed in words or in writing. We realized that adopting a set of company core values would not just reinforce who we are to our current employees and clients; it would also make a statement to prospective employees and partners about how we do business and why we are successful.

A scary and messy idea

Because one of our most cherished values at QIP has always been to avoid a top-down management style, we realized that our core values would be more authentic, meaningful, and accurate if we involved our entire team in the development process.

This felt like a scary and messy idea. It would be so easy for senior managers to simply craft core values and announce them. What if all employees engaged in the creation process only to discover that everyone’s ideas radically differed from one another?

We ultimately decided to take the plunge because we wanted to remain loyal to our values and management style and maintain a spirit of inclusivity. Plus, we knew that QIP employees hold high standards of excellence. Having worked together as a team for years, our values could not be too far apart. And if they were? Well, that would be a learning experience that would make our company stronger.

A six-step process for crafting core values with employee input

At a company-wide retreat in fall 2017, our 26-person team gathered in a hotel conference room and engaged in a multistep process. The process began with presentations and group activities that provided contextual information about core values and concluded with the development and refinement of our core values.

Step 1. Understand that core values are not empty jargon. Using prepared PowerPoint slides, senior managers explained what core values should be—important and lasting standards and beliefs shared by a group—as well as what they often, unfortunately, end up being—marketing jargon that no one cares about or believes in. This web page inspired and informed the presentation, especially the cautionary tale regarding Enron. The team broke into groups and made up some fake, clichéd “values” so everyone understood what we do not want our core values to be.

Step 2. Learn that core values are not aspirational, accidental, or permission-to-play values. Senior managers defined other list items that would not be core values. For example, a value that a company aspires to but does not currently hold is not a core value. A commonality that arises by accident and is not actively cultivated is not a core value. And baseline standards of behavior (permission-to-play values) are not core values; this is because core values show how a company excels in contrast to its competitors, not ways in which it follows basic governmental laws and societal rules. This web page offers more detailed explanations on what core values are not. After presenting this information, we had the groups brainstorm examples of these types of list items that are not core values.

Step 3. Realize that core values are important and lasting standards and beliefs. After senior managers gave the team a thorough, multipart definition of what core values are, the groups discussed published lists of other companies’ core values. This allowed everyone to gain an understanding of the wide variety of possibilities. During this activity, employees noticed many similarities—and differences—between our company and the companies we discussed. We began to think about what makes us unique.

Step 4. Draft lists of core values. Armed with this contextual information, the team drafted lists of authentic core values that would represent QIP and differentiate us from other companies. Employees gathered in their traditional daily working groups this time. Each of the groups brainstormed a list to share with the full team.

Step 5. Combine and refine the lists of core values. We happily discovered that the groups, working separately, drafted lists that were strikingly similar to one another. Many of the words chosen by the groups were identical or synonyms, and nothing on the lists stood out as wildly divergent or unexpected. We were happy to learn that QIP’s culture truly does center around a few important principles that we all intuitively understand.

Step 6. Finalize and adopt our core values. Upon returning to our home offices, the Communications & Content group at QIP edited, proofread, and visually designed our new core values. Senior managers sent a polished draft to the entire company to request any last individual input. We took this feedback into consideration and made some minor changes. Finally, we adopted our core values and published them on our website.

Reflecting on the process and keeping the core values relevant

In the end, we were glad that we engaged in the multistep process of coming to a group consensus on core values, instead of imposing ideas from the top down. This effort gave everyone on the team a voice, and a stake, and we discovered that our team truly has the values we thought we saw at QIP.

Our next goal is to make sure our core values stay relevant. We plan to refer to them often in the future. This may happen during interactions within our team and with external clients and contacts, during recruitment and hiring of new employees, through our website and blog, on social media, and during annual performance reviews.

We can now confidently say that we nurture, promote, balance, celebrate, and commit—and this is what makes us QIP.

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The World Is Changing . . . What’s Your Resolution?

We’ve recently welcomed the year 2018 into our lives. With it will come new experiences, lots of growth, and many changes. Some of us made personal New Year’s resolutions as we contemplated the preceding year as well as looked to the year ahead. January is also a great month to make resolutions for your 2018 work life.

How do you hope to grow as a professional this year? If you haven’t yet identified a work-related resolution, you could try thinking in terms of the ways you want, or need, to change in response to shifting circumstances around you. Since the world is constantly evolving, it’s important to adapt and keep abreast of new trends and technologies.

Also keep in mind that not all resolutions have to be related to completing discrete tasks or learning specific skills (though they can be, of course). For example, consider Maya Angelou’s advice: “If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.” Whatever you do, however, don’t remain the same in the face of the rapid transformations our world is experiencing.

The majority of what we do at QIP involves ensuring that education data are as accurate, available, and useful as possible. Therefore, in 2018 we will be thinking about how we can improve data operations, quality, accessibility, and use. We will also be seeking to improve our professional capabilities to support these goals—for example, by focusing on being effective teammates, learning new technological skills, and showing leadership and initiative at work.

Here’s to both continuing to improve education data and developing ourselves professionally this year—sound and reasonable resolutions for 2018. At QIP, we’re proud of what we do because improving education data directly impacts the quality  of education . . . and education, more than any other field, sows seeds that can change our world for the better. We wish to all a wonderful 2018 that’s filled with positive growth and exciting transformations.

[Source of quotation: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-in-fifteen-quotes]

Evaluations: Because We All Can Improve

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The holiday season has ramped up, and everyone is busy with work and personal obligations. It’s a time of busyness not just for our company, but also for education stakeholders in federal, state, and local agencies. But even in the midst of this joyful but harried time of year, QIP chooses to take a short hiatus from our day-to-day responsibilities to reflect on staff productivity and satisfaction over the past calendar year. Yes, the last two months of the year is the time when we conduct our annual staff evaluations.

In some organizations, evaluations are largely a formality, but we have a different perspective on the process. Evaluations offer our organization the opportunity to (1) evaluate individual productivity and work quality; (2) discuss the future direction of staff responsibilities; (3) assess staff satisfaction; and (4) gather feedback regarding how our people, projects, and organization are managed. 

At QIP, the evaluation process begins when each employee receives a written evaluation from his or her supervisor. The written draft is followed up by telephone meetings, during which staff members can discuss the evaluation with the supervisor and set goals for the following year.

As managers, we understand that a review—particularly when it comes to areas for improvement—can sometimes make people feel defensive, unappreciated, or undervalued . . . but we hope to convey the opposite: our employees are very much appreciated and valued. When conducting evaluations, we stress our belief that we can all improve in some way—and that includes the Principals. As such, we encourage staff to get the most out of the evaluation process by welcoming constructive feedback on both demonstrated strengths and areas in which they can grow and improve.

We also tell our staff to think seriously about how to set achievable goals for next year that are meaningful to both QIP and the employee. We are confident that all of our staff want to do a good job and improve their skills and performance. Our annual evaluation process contributes to our individual and collective development, and we encourage employees to embrace the process. It’s an opportunity to exchange perspectives, think about evolving roles within the company, and grow as valued professionals.

Thank You, Lunch Ladies and All Who Work to Help Others

“A thank you can change a life.” This assertion was shared by Jarrett Krosoczka during his 2014 TED Talk “Why Lunch Ladies are Heroes.” Krosoczka is the author of the Lunch Lady graphic novel series, and his talk and novels focus on the school lunch ladies who play an essential, but often overlooked, role in the education system. This reminded us of education data—essential for everyday district and school operations (such as planning, evaluation, and improvement), but often overlooked relative to other aspects of the education enterprise.

As emphasized in Krosoczka’s talk, lunch ladies do a lot more than serve chicken nuggets. More than 30 million kids participate in school lunch programs every day—that’s more than 5 billion lunches made each school year. In one district in Kentucky, where 67 percent of the students relied on schools to serve them meals each day during the school year, the lunch ladies retrofitted a school bus so they could feed 500 kids a day over the summer, when the children might not otherwise receive regular meals. Thank you, lunch ladies, for making the effort, and thank you to members of the data community for collecting the data that drives education decisionmaking and action.

Krosoczka’s presentation made us think about the unsung heroes in our lives. In the context of QIP, sometimes some of our staff become very busy with a large, important assignment. When we finish a big project, it is natural that we should thank the folks who worked on it—for example, the management planners, content leads, reviewers, editors, and graphic designers. But we sometimes forget to thank the people who didn’t work on that particular project, but carried the weight of all the other projects—also extremely important—that needed to be completed at that time, allowing others to focus on the large assignment. We want to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone on the QIP staff—no matter which projects you happen to be involved in.

There are also many people beyond the work environment who deserve thanks. As Krosoczka states, “Before a child can learn, their belly needs to be full.” Who feeds your belly, literally or figuratively? Who helped you along your journey, but wasn’t noticed, or thanked, often enough because they were quiet and humble or, like the lunch ladies, didn’t have a high-profile position, even though their contributions to your life were real and meaningful?

Late November is a great time to share gratitude. Perhaps we should all reach out to the “lunch ladies” in our lives and share a heartfelt thank you. As shown in Krosoczka’s TED Talk, it can mean the world to someone, especially if they are feeling otherwise unnoticed or undervalued in our busy world.

[Source of TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/jarrett_krosoczka_why_lunch_ladies_are_heroes]

Leadership at All Levels Reaps Rewards

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It may seem paradoxical, but leadership is something that everyone should practice in the workplace. That’s right—leadership isn’t just for the designated “leaders” of an organization. It’s for everyone, from the recent college graduate starting his or her first job, to the experienced professional who’s been working in the field for thirty years. Leadership also isn’t just for large crowds and big meetings; in fact, it’s useful in work situations we experience every day.

American financier and presidential advisor Warren G. Bennis explains that “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” At QIP, almost all of our staff are in the business of converting clients’ ideas into the products we develop for them—and, given Warren G. Bennis’s definition of leadership, that makes everyone at QIP a leader.

How might leadership play out in an individual’s day-to-day work? Here are a few best practices we use at QIP:

  • We schedule meetings with clients regularly and make a point of listening to their needs—which is an important, but often overlooked, leadership tool.
  • We share draft products with clients as a standard practice to make sure that our work reflects their needs. Being responsible for meeting clients’ needs is leadership, too.
  • Finally, it’s important to feel empowered to share assessments of client needs with senior management, project directors, and colleagues throughout the organization, so everyone can stay aware of how the team is helping clients achieve their objectives and goals. Collaboration helps to ensure high-quality outputs; this is leadership.

When you listen to client needs, incorporate their direction into your working drafts, and share ideas and project progress with your colleagues, clients will find your support critical to their success. If you do this on a regular basis, you are surely acting like a leader on your team, throughout your organization, and for your clients.

Teams benefit when everyone is actively leading: working to translate clients’ visions into the products and services they need. We’ve found this to be true at QIP, and it will also be true for you.

[Source of quotation: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Warren_Bennis]

Success: The Tip of the Iceberg

Success is something we all crave, and people seem to talk about it endlessly. But what is it, exactly? The Free Dictionary offers these definitions:

1. the favorable outcome of something attempted

2. the attainment of wealth, fame, etc.

At QIP, we’re more interested in the first definition than the second. But there’s another definition of success that resonates with the type of work we do: Success is the product of effort.

The image of an iceberg as a metaphor for success has been making the rounds through social media. The lower, and bigger, portion of the iceberg represents all the unseen attributes that contribute to the higher, and smaller, portion, which represents observable success.

Over the years, we have noticed that six foundational attributes lead to success within our company:

  • Persistence – We keep trying, even when the road is difficult.
  • Failure – We all fail at times, but do we learn from our mistakes and keep trying? As Thomas Edison said, “Many of life's failures . . . did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
  • Sacrifice – Putting energy into one thing means that we are forgoing the opportunity to put it into something else. This is inevitable; we work to make good choices about where to invest our energy.
  • Good habits – For most of us, success is the result of good practices and routines, not flashy ideas, charisma, or brilliance.
  • Hard work – Very few things come easily; you must work for them. To quote Thomas Edison again, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
  • Dedication – Sticking to a winning formula is important. We focus on the attributes that have led to past successes as reasonable launching points for future successes.

When teams display these attributes, it’s amazing how powerful the results can be. Focusing on the six foundational attributes is much more efficacious than striving for wealth or fame. The former goes deep; the latter is too shallow to build real results.

However you choose to define success, it always seems to emanate from deep down. Dig deep, and you will rise high. That’s our philosophy at QIP.

Teamwork: Greater than the Sum of the Parts

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If you are an athlete or theater goer—or both!—you’ve seen how a coordinated group effort can produce an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts. Coaches, stage directors, task managers, project directors, and other leaders recommend a wide range of sometimes competing philosophies for inspiring and improving teamwork, but here’s how we approach the concept at QIP.

The Business Dictionary defines teamwork as “the process of working collaboratively with a group of people in order to achieve a goal.” That sounds right, but we think there’s more to it. In fact, we like the way artist and author Zero Dean explains the concept in more interpersonal terms:

Teamwork is the combined commitment to overcome obstacles. It’s support. It’s encouragement. It’s working together.

It’s rising to the challenge of bettering yourself for the benefit of the whole. It’s providing the support & encouragement necessary to help others better themselves and succeed in their endeavors.

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, many experts believe that, after identifying a shared goal or purpose, the most important aspects of teamwork center on relationships: effective group communications, efficient collaborative processes, and positive interpersonal interactions. We consistently put these ideas into practice here at QIP.

No matter what your workplace role is, it’s a valuable exercise to consider how you contribute to the teams you work within—internally, with business partners, and in client settings. What is your role? What do you contribute? What could you contribute? To evaluate yourself, you can ask questions such as these:

  • Am I a consistent contributor?
  • Am I a person my colleagues can count on?
  • Do I volunteer to pick up the slack when I see opportunities to do so?
  • Do I share credit and acknowledge good work in others?
  • Do I encourage others?
  • Do I treat others with respect?
  • Am I a person other people want to work with?

If your assessment suggests that there’s room for you to improve in your team skills, why not give it a try? No one is perfect, but people who collaborate as teammates can do great things together. Up your game in the teamwork department, and see how it improves your professional products, interpersonal relationships, and job satisfaction! That’s what all of us at QIP are continually striving to do.

Making Work-Life Balance a Priority

At QIP, we don’t just hire employees. We work to build a team of people who know they matter and who’ll stay with us for the long run. The productivity of our company depends on having a steady team. We know that if our company operated like a revolving door, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the high standards we’re known for. A long-term team of committed workers translates into an efficient business with long-term success.

So, when we tell our team to balance work and life, we mean it.

Sure, exciting things are happening around here on the professional front. But it is our current team of people that is the secret ingredient behind our accomplishments. Since founding QIP in 2004, we have seen that good people with good skills and good clients with good projects make for a wonderful workplace, and a successful company.

As we continue to develop our business, we aim to sustain our QIP culture. Our philosophy is that while business success is important, fulfillment in life is even more crucial. That’s because when things get out of balance, workers tend to either leave or lower their standards. On the contrary, workers who feel fulfilled in their personal life will bring the best of themselves to work each day.

We therefore honor work-life balance and adhere to a 40-hour work week. Yes, if our employees have a big deliverable or proposal due, they may be asked to commit more time that week. However, on a routine basis, we expect that employees will strike a healthy balance between QIP needs and personal needs.

We tell our team, on a regular basis, two things:

  1. You matter and we are happy to work with you.
  2. We want to be in this with you for the long run, so be sure to fit work into your life—and not the other way around.

This healthy perspective on individuals, teams, and life beyond the office continues to make QIP a great place to work. We are thrilled to continue to have happy employees who successfullydeliver to our clients, year after year.