Chapter One – ‘The Gap’

During my career I’ve been lucky to attend many conferences and at one such event last summer the line-up of speakers included an experienced OFSTED inspector and a senior member of staff from the SFA.  They both, coincidentally and in their own different ways, made reference to something which has stuck with me and that I consider very important.

Without quoting them verbatim, what they asserted related to colleges’ use of data; that in their experience, many good and outstanding colleges have successfully changed the way in which they handle and use data.  The colleges in question have broken free from an older era where data was almost a necessary evil, with a focus on data handling as a mainly bureaucratic exercise.  This has been replaced with a more positive and creative approach where intelligent data analysis has become one of the main agents of improved standards.  They are transforming the way that they use data.

To those of us who have been working with data for a long time his may sound like a reasonably obvious observation and of course other factors such as high standards of teaching, learning and assessment will always be of prime importance.  However, this perspective raised in my mind the question of why this transformation has happened sooner in some colleges than others, and in doing so it underlined a potential response to that question which had been in the back of my mind for the previous two or three years.

I’ve been helping colleges use systems and data to improve their work for around fifteen years, during which time I’ve worked with thousands of teaching and pastoral staff as well and hundreds of managers at all levels.  In that time I’ve noticed that, as you would expect, the overall standard of IT literacy among teaching and pastoral staff has improved significantly, and also that many colleges now have middle/senior managers who have a grasp of IT and data which far outreaches the levels that would have been expected ten to fifteen years ago.  Having said that, most (but not all) of these teachers and managers have based their career on a non-technical foundation, predominantly having started in the classroom and worked their way up.  In the main, even those with high levels of general IT literacy would happily admit that they lack the ‘pure’ technical skills of their colleagues with IT as their main specialism – the staff who are usually found in information services, network support or e-learning departments, some of whom may have highly advanced skills in areas such as query writing, report building, data management or website design.

Although in reality there is some blurring of the lines and there are some staff who are truly multi-talented, we can therefore think of two broad types of staff existing in colleges – those for whom data, IT and information management is at the core of their training, expertise and job description; and the majority of teaching, support and management staff for whom this is not the case, highly skilled as they are in their own fields.  The concept which now becomes relevant is the gap between these two sets of staff.

Whilst there has undoubtedly been an overall ‘closing of the gap’ between academic and technical staff, it nevertheless remains.  There are a few different ways to think about this gap.  The first (and most obvious) is to acknowledge that no single person can know everything and that staff need to work together as a coherent team to improve data management and ultimately, standards of provision.  A development of this is to visualise some staff, predominately managers and frequently non-technical, as those who are tasked with identifying areas for improvement and formulating plans to bring that improvement into effect. In doing so they will assess the performance of the college based on their expertise and judgement, through analysis of how students, staff, systems and processes are performing; as part of this process they often need data and information to provide answers to their questions. Technical staff may maintain and run the systems which contain the data and potentially provide the answers to the questions posed by teachers and managers, but they can only do this to its full effect when it’s made clear to them what the priorities are in terms of data requirements.  Furthermore, they themselves need to remember that their information is not an end in itself and that it’s important to work collaboratively with managers in order to jointly identify what data is required and how it might be used to best effect.

To return to a simplification of ‘the gap’, we could say that managers need to know which questions to ask and to ask them sufficiently clearly for their technical colleagues to interpret; whilst those staff who work with systems and data might have the answers at their disposal, but need to appreciate that the knowledge and information at their disposal is most useful when servicing the broader needs of the college.

Bridging the Gap

Hence we have a large number of academic staff and managers who know what questions to ask and need answers; and a smaller number of people who have the means to provide answers, but need to understand the questions.  The two groups often have radically different training, skills and experience.  This brings a potential for tension, so why is it that in some colleges this situation is resolved better than in others?  I don’t claim to hold all the answers to that question but I do have some experience to bring to bear on this.

Some aspects of college practice which may be relevant include:

  • having a logical and understandable approach to structuring data (e.g. course codes)
  • developing protocols for the production and use of reports
  • embedding processes which encourage data to be used positively
  • establishing internal cross-disciplinary project management groups
  • appointment of middle/senior managers with technical experience
  • enhancing existing managers’ technical skills through training
  • developing a ‘customer focussed’ approach within technical support teams
  • engagement with other bodies/colleges or consultants to provide an external perspective

(this list is not of course exhaustive and you will probably be itching to add your own ideas)

A unifying theme in many of the points in the above list is to think of the challenge faced by an interpreter.  The two camps in a college are engaged in an extended conversation where they should be hoping to achieve a common outcome through working together.  In order to do this they need to understand each other and this understanding can be difficult to achieve if they have such different backgrounds and skills that it sometimes feels as if they speak a different language.  Hence there becomes a need for something (or someone) to bridge the gap and act as if in the role of an interpreter.

My posts over the next 12 months will look into these and other areas of college practice in more detail.  Whilst each posting will I hope work as its own separate entity, I also hope that collectively they will cohere into a single useful resource.  Future topics will include report writing, using college structure in reports, the challenge produced by English & maths, systems implementation and the importance of clarity in data structures.

The next post due at the end of May 2016 will develop this idea of an interpreter to ‘bridge the gap’.




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