Using data to make a difference in the classroom

Interest in big data has swelled thanks to technology that enables companies to collect massive amounts of information that can drive smarter decision making. But mining and analyzing that data doesn’t happen without the sophisticated mix of math, programming and statistical skills that professionals like data strategist Holden Mitchell bring to the table.

Mitchell graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in engineering, but his first job out of college took him in a different direction. He learned about Teach for America, a nationwide initiative that mobilizes young leaders to advance education equality by teaching in low-income or underserved schools. Inspired by the organization’s mission, Mitchell signed on for a two-year commitment teaching science and math at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. “I always enjoyed being around students, and joining Teach for America was a way for me to help fix an overall problem with inequity in education while building relationships with students,” he said.

He fulfilled his commitment and stayed on for a third year when he started incorporating technology into his classroom. Mitchell had become interested in web development during his senior year at OU as part of a robotics course. “I didn’t necessarily enjoy building the robot,” he explains, “but I did enjoy telling it what to do.” Looking at ways to make his classroom activities more efficient and effective, Mitchell built an online platform through which he administered and graded tests. Not only did the platform eliminate significant grading time, but it also allowed him to track results for individual questions and standards.

“As soon as my classes took a test, I had instant feedback on which questions and which types of questions students missed the most,” he said, “and I could immediately remediate the parts of the lesson that students weren’t quite understanding.” He also spent less time grading. What would have taken 4 to 5 hours on a Saturday was reduced to mere minutes.

Data factored into other classroom scenarios, such as composing groups for his chemistry lab students. Mitchell explains that he would rank students based on measurements like reading scores or current class grades. “By putting students who were higher performers with students who needed a little more help, my lab assignments ran more efficiently because the higher performing students could push the other students to perform higher. This kept the lab moving at the pace we needed in order to complete it.”

In search of a new opportunity after his third year of teaching, he found out that Tulsa Public Schools was building a data team as part of its long-term strategy — a perfect career fit that paired Mitchell’s web development and data analysis skills with his desire to make a difference for students.

He sees huge potential for the use of data in education and says things are moving in this direction, but there are still obstacles to overcome. “As long as the burden to collect and analyze data remains on teachers and principals, we won’t see effective use of it in classrooms and schools — not because they’re not qualified, but because as a teacher or principal, you have a million other things that you’re focused on. Principals are responsible for managing a school site and teachers are there to teach. They shouldn’t be tasked with doing the data analysis in their classrooms.”

In addition to taking on a new role at Tulsa Public Schools, Mitchell also decided to pursue a graduate degree. He chose TU’s new Master of Science degree in Business Analytics because it offered a business foundation with an emphasis on the technical skills that equip graduates to analyze a variety of high-dimensional business and scientific data. He joins the first cohort in the program, which begins this fall. The program’s evening courses will allow Mitchell to continue working while pursuing his degree. Envisioning what he hopes to accomplish by returning to school, Mitchell says, “I primarily work with web development tools, but we have a data scientist on our team who builds data models using linear regressions, so I look forward to being able to speak the same language as him. I also want to get a more holistic understanding of data and how it’s used.”

For more information on TU’s MS in Business Analytics program, click here.