Friday 20 November 2020

Data

Data has replaced oil as the world’s most valuable resource. In a digital environment, data is currently considered to be a (if not the) primary asset: the tool to interpret, analyse, project and even automate operations to ensure efficacy. The big purpose? To produce efficiencies and outcomes that will take any given entity – team, organisation, community or dare I suggest school, to the next stage of its distinctive yet competitive future. In 2020 Riverview has seen a new and compelling reliance on data due to the COVID environment, but only insofar as it will serve the values of the faith tradition upon which it is based – one where the message of the Gospel has at times been made distant due to the forced suspension of parish life and liturgy in the College. Let me return to the latter towards the end of this statement.

There are many forms of data in schools – personal data, organisational data, financial data, demographic data, learning data, pastoral care data and the list goes on. It can be captured in myriad ways and it can be interrogated in creative forms. It can be correlated, subjected to all manner of statistical tests, pressed for coherence and validated in multiple ways. It can enlighten, while at the same time obfuscate and misconstrue without the proper context or construct applied to the data. There is also a risk that data can be superficially descriptive and quantitative to the exclusion of the qualitative – the latter which can inform understanding at a much deeper level. Once it goes that far, it has the potential to become inanimate and inert. The latter is far from the very purpose of a Jesuit school, where an ethical and critical understanding of information (which data can be in its most shallow form) is anathema to our faith, our community and our world.

Data in 2020 has reached new and heretofore unparalleled importance. At the most recent meeting of the College Board, the following profiles were presented that may be of interest to the school community:

Page views for CANVAS this year hit the 17 million mark
  • Over the course of 2020 there has been 17 million individual access points of Canvas – Riverview’s Learning Management System. It has enabled the synchronous and asynchronous delivery of the learning platform and been the object of multiple evaluations along the way
  • During the intense phase of the virtual timetable, over 5 million Zoom minutes were registered on the digital platform. Qualitative evaluations were conducted along the way by teachers, parents and students to calibrate teaching and learning practices to best respond to the survey data
  • During the SELT (Student Experience of Teaching and Learning) evaluation program, 6,392 individual questionnaires were completed across 515 classes that provided feedback to 256 teachers. This process alone accounted for over 100,000 data pieces that were interrogated in multiple ways

These are small prisms of the data fields that are forthcoming on a regular basis, all of which form the basis of analytics to measure the College’s performance in the delivery of the learning program. They are supplemented by vast quantities of report data – aggregated and disaggregated faculty profiles, z-scores, valued added configurations and multiple correlations across data fields. While the institution of education was once considered an art, it is increasingly being regarded as an empirical science.

Thankfully, the College is gifted with significant IT expertise. Mr Brett Houghton coordinates a team who manage all aspects of the IT platform, from hardware provision and software licences through to maintenance of security firewalls and the pursuit of strategic futures. Their expertise was no more evident than during the transition to the online learning environment that saw the face-to-face delivery of curriculum move across to the virtual timetable in 24 hours. It was a remarkable feat but one that had been in preparation by way of infrastructure for nearly two years.

As important as data is, it does not nor will not define schools such as Riverview. There is a deeper impulse and a more important quotient: faith, and with it values. While the technical and the empirical is laudable, it isn’t why schools exist. At the heartland of a Jesuit educational program is relationship – with God, with each other and with a community (local and international) that is in dire need of support. Schools are distinctly human agencies. Carbon, silicon and the sophistication of nanotechnology cannot produce that. Human values are the quantum by which happiness is measured, something which neither money nor technology can produce. This, in Jesuit parlance, is magis – a willingness to go deeply and widely into the qualitative rather than the quantitative. It is an investment in time and depth, the human qualities of love, trust, fidelity, compassion and hope that profit and efficiency can never appropriate. While they are not mutually exclusive, we move into questionable if not dangerous territory when the focus of an organisation strays from the human values upon which it is built.

COVID has made us step back – not a bad thing in some ways. While it has called forth new measures of measurement through distance and a novel reliance on data, it has not compromised nor been transcended by endeavours that are fundamentally spiritual and human. As we go through large data analytics over the coming weeks that have been part of an extraordinary year, there are some areas that are just too important and too difficult to measure. These speak to the essence of what it means to be fully alive, human, engaged and spiritually fulfilled. They will be the object of our primary endeavours, but of course, not to the detriment of the data.

Dr Paul Hine