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Virginia Journal of Education


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Data, Data Everywhere: How to Make Use of It

by Karen W. Richardson

We are surrounded by data. From the graphs on the front page of USA Today to the polls on the nightly news, we are challenged to understand numbers and what they mean. And, if my own work life is an example, learning to use data efficiently and effectively is very important. In fact, I’ve spent a good bit of time in the last several months just dealing with data: I’ve created forms to both collect data from and share data with users, used tools to sort and filter that data, merged the data with other tools to create documents, and analyzed it to make decisions. One of my favorite data-driven tools I created was a “choose your session” form that allowed attendees at the Virginia Society for Technology in Education conference to create a personalized schedule for themselves.

This kind of data work is familiar to educators as well. Schools have been spending lots of time and energy focusing on data-driven decision-making. But, even as I use data to increase productivity and educators use data to improve instruction and student achievement, I wonder how much data work we are doing with our students. One of the best ways to understand those numbers and what they mean is through working with data ourselves. The same lessons we have learned about collecting, organizing and analyzing data are also essential skills for our students. As we address data literacy, we must focus on all the ways that students will interact with data as they move from school to work.

Collecting data has never been easier. Google Docs (http://docs.google.com) includes a tool for creating simple surveys. Data is dumped right into a spreadsheet, ready to be organized and analyzed. InspireData  (www.inspiredata.com) also offers the ability to create surveys. For more complex surveys or database applications, Zoho (www.zoho.com) offers free access to Creator, its database tool. Of course, survey tools like Zoomerang (www.zoomerang.com) and Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) also make survey creation easy.

We don’t always work with data we’ve collected ourselves. The Web offers seemingly unlimited access to data from earthquakes to census to weather. Being able to harvest this data means learning how to use formats like comma-delimited files to move data from one place to another.  Here’s one of my favorite tips of all time for dealing with getting data correctly formatted: Have you ever dumped data into a spreadsheet only to find everything in one column? Peek under the tools menu and look for “text to columns.” In just a few clicks, the data will be spread across the columns, ready for sorting, organizing and analyzing.

Spreadsheet tools like Google Docs, Excel and InspireData offer lots of ways to present your data graphically. An honest-to-goodness database tool like Zoho Creator allows multiple views as well. But as with all technologies, teachers must focus on meaningful manipulation. Students could imagine various scenarios where the same data would need to be presented in different ways to meet the needs of different groups. For instance, if you’re looking at census data, school officials would be interested in the number of children in the household while transportation officials would be concerned with the number of adults who might be driving.

Getting data out of the spreadsheet and into other documents is also an important skill. In my job, I might use the same spreadsheet to create nametags, a conference program or an interactive online form. Learning how to merge data makes work more productive by really tapping into the power of the technology.

The field of data visualization is growing fast, particularly in terms of mapping. Geographic Information Systems allow scientists in fields as diverse as art history, agriculture and urban planning to collect and map data. The tools they use, however, can be expensive and complex to learn. Google Earth offers a worthwhile alternative for schools with a free version that puts powerful data visualization in the hands of students.

Google is experimenting with data visualization in other ways as well. At the Google Labs website, where the Internet giant rolls out early versions of their latest creations, you can find the Google Public Data Explorer (www.google.com/publicdata/home). Here, Google provides access to publicly available data sets along with the tools to create custom, animated views. Data becomes dynamic, moving through time, thus facilitating the analysis of trends. Right now, the number of datasets is somewhat limited, but very interesting.
 
Data plays a role in every content area and my challenge to you is to find a way to incorporate it into your classroom!

Richardson holds a PhD in Curriculum and Educational Technology from the College of William & Mary. She teaches educational technology and research courses at William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. She is also the executive director of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education.

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