Technology is transforming the production of education data

The relentless pace of digital technology development, the rapid expansion of generated data, and the advent of artificial intelligence tools are changing the education monitoring landscape and have potential implications that are yet to be mapped or discussed at a global scale. The UNESCO Conference on Education Data and Statistics concluded last week with two sessions devoted to this theme. They discussed the associated opportunities and challenges; the rules and protocols for the use of big data in education statistics and the potential of artificial intelligence for the generation of policy-oriented SDG 4 indicators. This blog summarizes the different perspectives of the ten countries who took part.

For many countries, the area where technology is playing a central role is assessment. Technology can help address challenges of scale. Dr Anindito Aditomo, Head of Agency for Standards, Curriculum and Assessment of Education in Indonesia described a system reform covering policy regulations and interventions on training, recruitment, a new curriculum and evaluation. It requires monitoring around half a million schools through a new assessment system.

Technology also helps with speed in reporting back learning outcomes to schools. The Deputy Minister for Education in the Syrian Arab Republic, Dr Rami Dulli, described the use of online testing with automatic scoring to accelerate reporting and reaching students and teachers. The speed was also described as critical for helping students and teachers understand more quickly the impact of reforms.

Technology helps improve the measurement of inclusion. The 2023 GEM Report on technology in education referenced where India has used geographical information system data to highlight discrepancies between school catchment areas and maximum travel distances for pupils. The Minister of Education for Colombia, Ms Vergara Figueroa, also described the use of geospatial data and other digital information on learners in order to assess where resources should be targeted and for which learners. Colombia is also using information and data to address the problems of gender and generational gaps – as well as to identify where risks to schools are the greatest as a result of climate change, including fire risks.

The Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics has invested in an SDG platform with a data tabulator that helps users choose the year and indicator they want to analyse and visualize the geographic distribution of results. It will be enhanced with census data so that users can disaggregate data by each of more than 5000 municipalities. 

Spain also uses technology to integrate data from different administrative levels. Strong reporting frameworks made it possible to crosscheck with other official registries, including education registries for qualifications, and ultimately give a better understanding of the population. As data are shared, confidentiality and data protection become more important. Saudi Arabia has developed data policy and governance with a data and AI authority and a national centre for AI to address data ethics issues. 

The 2023 GEM Report also found that few countries lack the capacity to produce and manipulate data effectively. While reporting used to take place once a year, the emphasis on data now requires data management every day. Alpha Bah, the head of EMIS in Gambia, explained the constraints facing many African countries. Simple issues can stand in the way, such as training staff who can use laptops to collect and analyse data, and staff turnover, which means they have to start from scratch. Access to electricity and connectivity remain distinct challenges in many countries.

Part of the capacity problem is due to the digital divide. Colombia’s Minister of Education noted notable gender gaps in digital skills, while low literacy skills among teachers was highlighted by Mr Bah in Gambia, making it hard to expect them to manage data. Syria has local IT centres aimed at training teachers on this issue. In the United States, better digital skills are need for students so that they could be better stewards of their own data.

Innovative ways of working around these challenges using different tools are being found. Mr Bah emphasized that data can be collected using WhatsApp and mobile phones, which could help develop an ‘individualized, decentralized, disaggregated’ system.

One country representative reminded the audience just how hard data production can be for the ‘duty bearers’. Fast technological change is a challenge to policy makers as much as it is to teachers, who are also required to take part in data reporting exercises. The resources to set up advanced reporting and tracking systems may be beyond reach for some.

But the promise that technology offers if the funds and skills are there was something all were excited about. Its ability to visualize data; to integrate data sources; to manage vast databases for countries with large populations, and the speed with which it can do all of the above are too tempting not to explore.

The potential also led to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics to announce the development of a new Education Databot, an AI-enhanced data visualization tool that works purely from the UIS SDG 4 database. All of us are learning in how to develop and use such tools. This is now open to the public to play with. It means all can try on the shoes of a policy maker in seeing what is possible when using technology in data. What can be done, what cannot, but what might we be able to do if we all work together on developing public goods like these to our advantages in the future.


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