Getting Staff to Use Online Data Systems

School districts that set up Web-based systems to gather data and help make instructional decisions often run into trouble when staff members don’t know how—or don’t want—to use them.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, though, say administrators of two large districts that have found success in getting people onboard. John Forbes, administrative analyst for the 80,000-student Fresno Unified School District in Fresno, California, and Terrence Young, chief information officer for the 70,000-student Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina, share their strategies.

Find out what will make the grade before the full rollout.
Enlist beta testers to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Guilford County, which uses eScholar’s data warehouse, used a team of three high school, middle school, and elementary school principals and three instructional improvement officers—administrators who function like area superintendents—to do testing. The group spent two months trying out the system at individual schools and provided feedback before the final version came together.

Tech administrators checked on the team’s progress by seeing who was “logging in to the system and playing with it,” says Young.

Pay attention to what end users want.
Ask teachers and principals which specific configurations of data they would like to see, says Young. That might include a report with numbers of students by class who received Ds and Fs in a particular quarter, for example.

“The best way to make it work is to find out what your end users want from the product, and avoid listening to vendors tell you what they think your end users want,” Young says.

Make training a top priority.
Because there’s always a range of technical expertise, training has to be available at every level, says Forbes, whose district uses PowerSchool’s student information system. [Editor’s note: Apple recently sold PowerSchool to Pearson.]

Do training at convenient times and with small groups.
When Fresno does teacher training, it provides multiple time slots, including after school, during prep periods, and even at lunch. Forbes says they work with groups of 10 to 20 people. “I would never, ever go above 20,” he says. Forbes adds that it’s important to find time to do individualized training, even for tech-savvy teachers, when necessary.

Show, don’t tell.
For those who doubt that the benefit of the system outweighs the inconvenience of having to learn it, trainers in Fresno demonstrate the system by logging in as administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and students.

When reluctant teachers, for example, sees for themselves the pluses— that the front office can find out three weeks into the quarter which freshmen are cutting class or how many seniors are failing—they’re usually convinced.

Point out how it makes life easier.
Having 24-hour access to attendance and achievement data means teachers, principals, and administrators can demonstrate their accountability.

Getting that message across—that one-stop shopping for data makes educators’ lives easier—was the most effective thing Guilford County did to bring people around, according to Young.

“Data warehousing is gaining momentum across the nation because of No Child Left Behind and also state accountability models,” he says. “You can’t make a decision without the data, so having ready access to your own data that is effective is its own selling point.”

Always solicit feedback after training.
In Guilford County’s case, feedback included criticism that the Web interface, in particular the drop-down menus, were cumbersome. Tech staff responded and put more information in categories.

Make it easy to get answers.
Have a Web site that includes all training materials and provides support, says Forbes.
Provide and encourage e-mail rather than phone support, though, he says.

Create a wiki.
When Fresno launched its student information system, the district kept users informed about system changes and training through a list server, but later found a Wiki-based model to be more effective. Wikis allow anybody to update the Web page, add tips how to use the grade book, or answer a question that didn’t get addressed during training, says Forbes.

Sheila Riley is a San Francisco–based freelancer who also writes for EE Times and Investor’s Business Daily.