Getting smart about data

Each time I pay at the counter of my neighbourhood grocery store, I’m asked for my mobile number. Ostensibly, it’s to add loyalty points to my account, so that I can claim a discount at some point. But the intelligent grocery chain will also use it to add to the data on shopping behaviour – what items do I buy regularly, which brands do I favour, what quantities of this or that do I stock up on each month (or each week), how often do I visit the store? This is just one data-harvesting point. In so many of our daily interactions with different systems, we are literally, shedding data – about location, consumption, communication, entertainment, information-seeking, health, movement, and so much more.

Some of this data is gathered in direct ways, with consent and with the understanding that it is necessary to make our lives easier and the systems that serve us more efficient. But much – like that gathered as we swipe through apps on our phones – is picked up in more surreptitious and indirect ways.

Education has for long, even before the Internet, been a sphere where data was crucial, both at the aggregate level (how schools in general were functioning, what broad trends were seen in learning standards, resource allocation and use, movement of teachers and students across the system, etc.) and at the more granular level (how a student was performing across the year, the impact of different pedagogic styles, level of parental involvement in different schools). But now, with automation and electronic data gathering tools introducing new forms of measurement and the ability to analyze at scale, the possibilities (and perils) of datafication have reached a new level.

Across the world, there has been a growing conversation around a variety of issues related to data – issues of privacy, misuse and abuse, ownership and control, among others. Schools as institutions, and teachers as individuals, would do well to listen in, and possibly even participate, in these conversations, as many of the biggest harvesters of data in recent times have been companies that educators depend on to teach, to look for information, or to share resources. And then there are the EdTech firms and the many support services that schools increasingly use, from student records management to enterprise management systems, which are granted access to a range of data, almost always clearly linked to individual identities. The kinds of questions that need to be asked are: What are the implications of having all this data in the hands of private companies? What safeguards can be put in place to ensure that the data is not misused?

This issue will hopefully open up some of these much-needed conversations, and we hope you will take them on into your staffrooms and meetings, as the new year rolls around.

Here’s wishing you all a healthy and happy 2023!

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