Pen and Paper vs. Online Evaluation

Is it time to switch to an online platform to track my [fill in the blank] data? There are all sorts of school data platforms out there:

  • SIS: Student Information System
  • LMS: Learning Management System
  • MOOC: Massive Open Online Course
  • FAP: Formative Assessment Platform
  • TEP: Teacher Effectiveness Platform
  • RtI: Response to Intervention Platform

Usually before making the full switch to a data platform, schools try to manage the different types of data they track with pen and paper. Often when we say “pen and paper,” we’re actually referring to Excel. Every once in awhile I run across a school that is still completing evaluations on a paper form, making three copies, and submitting each copy to the necessary stakeholder (i.e., teacher, school office, district office), but more often than not, schools have cobbled together observation systems out of spreadsheets and word documents.

And this is a fine and logical place to start! Whether you’re tracking teacher observations or behavior systems or assessments, spreadsheets allow for complete flexibility and customizability. However, these benefits can actually create problems in the long term.

Sharing Problems

  • Spreadsheets must be formulated, linked, and shared with all stakeholders across a district (i.e., teachers, instructional coaches, principals), and then shared back at various points of the year. The process of tracking down all of this information usually leads to the creation of more spreadsheets, to confirm who has/hasn’t received emails, responded to emails, or turned in their data.
  • An errant click or keystroke can undo a complex formula in the blink of an eye. When dozens of people have access to a spreadsheet, the likelihood of this happening goes way up.
  • It’s difficult to confirm that everyone is using the system the way it’s intended. I have modified many a spreadsheet because the original I was asked to use didn’t work for my system. This worked for me day to day, but when it came time to report at the end of a term, I had to translate my data to match the original. This process creates double the work, generally means data isn’t input until the last minute, and, when the data finally is inputted, the translation makes it unreliable by nature.

Privacy Problems

  • Trackers are very rarely encrypted, meaning it could be easy for an outsider to access them. Plus, when you factor in FERPA, you may risk non-compliance with regulations by students in an unencrypted system.
  • With both Excel and Google Sheets, employees have the ability to make digital or paper copies of the data that the owner of the spreadsheet no longer has control over.

Paper Breeds Bad Systems

  • When you’re not confined by the constraints of a database, it’s easy to create a system that doesn’t actually measure what you think it measures. A prospective client came to us with their paper system, which was essentially a mash-up of a checklist and a Likert scale. By trying to measure two things at once (i.e., “Is this thing happening?” and “How well is it happening?”), the scores were either diluted or inflated, and ultimately the data was unclear and untrustworthy.

If you’re running up against any of these problems with your self-made data systems, it may be time to explore platforms.

We want to hear from you: What are the benefits of a self-made system? What other problems have you run up against?

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.