Leveraging Technology to Improve Academic and Clinical Outcomes

08/17/2017
TECHNOLOGY
By Andrew Shlesinger, MSW, LICSW Director of Clinical Technology, Melmark New England

Evidence-based teaching, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) chief among them, relies upon quality data, calculations, graphing and analysis to guide the professional towards teaching strategies that optimize skill and lesson acquisition. In practice, it is often burdensome to collect the amount or quality of data required, and time-consuming to crunch all that data and prepare graphs in preparation for analysis. As the level of technology in classrooms continues to grow along with the number of students benefitting from it, so too does the amount of data. This article gives some insights on how practitioners and organizations can think about gaining control of their data and getting the data to work for them.

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Evidence-based teaching, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) chief among them, relies upon quality data, calculations, graphing and analysis to guide the professional towards teaching strategies that optimize skill and lesson acquisition.

Common Ways Data is Taken in the Classroom

Commonly, teachers and clinicians record data on paper in real-time as the lessons or clinical interventions are delivered. “Datasheets” are designed to leave room for the optimal amount of data; enough to make good decisions at time of analysis, but not so much as to interfere in the delivery of the lesson. At regular intervals, the data is most often typed into a spreadsheet program, like Excel, so that it may be more easily graphed and prepared for careful analysis at regular intervals.

While spreadsheets like Excel are immensely powerful tools, they have some notable disadvantages, especially as the amount of data grows. Spreadsheets can only handle a set amount of data; they become bogged-down as the number of students grow along with the volume of data. For this reason, often one spreadsheet file will be made for each student, leading to what we call “islands of data,” where each student’s data stands alone. This limits the promise of using combined data to inform research, discover correlations across students, classrooms and programs, and more. If you want this level of analysis, databases are the way to go instead of spreadsheets.

Designing a Database to Meet the Needs of Your Students and Organizations

Databases, like Microsoft’s SQL or its smaller cousin, Access, are virtually limitless places to store all the data in an entire organization under one umbrella. They empower users to build as many data tables as they like, potentially capturing all the data used in an organization from individual student records, daily lesson and clinical data, assessments, to IEPs and more. The power of databases is that it can be programmed to correlate, analyze, and otherwise process all these separate sets of data together, providing powerful information to improve student performance and organizational improvement. Finally, databases are often designed with graphing and analysis components so that all analysis needs are met within one package.

Databases have a “front-end” and “back-end.” The front-end is what the user sees when they use the program; the forms they need to fill out, menus to select what they want to do, graphing and analysis options and more. The front-end is completely customizable and should address the exact needs of your organization in a clear and user-friendly way. Sometimes the front-end is a program on your computer, other times it can be designed into a website. The back-end is where all the raw data is kept, where tables are created, fields are related to one another, and queries and forms are built to serve the needs of the front-end program.

The downside to designing your own custom database is often time and cost. While small databases, especially in Access, can be designed relatively quickly, programming an organization-wide database involves a lot of work by experienced database programmers. The potential complexity of designing an “architecture” for the database — what the tables are, what data goes in each table, how the items in each table are connected (“related”) to items in other tables, etc. — along with the design of the forms and reports the users will see all combine to make this a hefty undertaking.

Data Taking Versus Automation

Spreadsheets and databases, if thoughtfully programmed, can be so much more than just a place to store your data and make graphs. “Automation” through custom programming can dramatically reduce the time spent preparing for regular analysis by automating calculations, graphing, and reporting. It can manage the processes of your classroom or organization by shepherding the paperwork, reporting and analyses through custom workflow, from one desk to the next, for electronic signatures, approvals and rejections.

In Excel, time-consuming steps like setting up graphs, adding condition lines or notes, and calculating progress can be automated, freeing the teacher to spend more time on important matters and less on busy-work. As we move beyond spreadsheets into database programming, like in SQL or Access, the sky’s the limit.

Consider our organization’s enterprise-wide, web-based database solution as a case-example. This database incorporates all the key needs of our academic, clinical and research endeavors in one user-friendly, tablet accessible place. It records and intelligently processes data as it passes the baton from formal assessments, goal selection, lesson plan selection, lesson customization, datasheet creation, lesson delivery on tablets, graphing, to reporting and research analysis.

It automates the collection of student academic or clinical data from any tablet, store that data across students, classes, residences, and campuses in a singular SQL back-end database, and provide analysis of the data in the form of graphs, charts, reports, statistical analysis, data-mining reports, and more.

The teacher takes academic and clinical data in real-time on tablet devices. It understands all the different evidence-based teaching methodologies, giving it the power to calculate the outcomes of the lessons in real-time. Decisions are immediately made based on those analyses, thereby creating a teaching environment in which the lesson adapts to the student’s responses step-by-step, set-by-set, and prompt-by-prompt. This ensures student receives the highest level of fluid lesson delivery without the compromise of the long delays for staff to make the analyses and adaptations when time allows.

Automating Workflow

All classrooms and organizations have workflow to ensure compliance with internal policies and procedures, proper information dissemination, required review and signage, and meeting of external and regulatory requirements. Most often these steps can be programmed and automated into a database solution, resulting in higher rates of procedural compliance, and, ultimately, better outcomes for students. Of course, it also saves time for those who would normally be tasked with “chasing down the paper.” The two most common components of workflow in databases are emails and electronic signage. Emails can be triggered to the right people at the right time following simple rules or highly complex decision trees.

In cases where timeliness is a matter of safety, having your database work for you round-the-clock is a critically useful component. For example, our databases managing incident reports, sleep charts, bowel movements and weights all utilize automatic emails and/or texts alerts to the specific supervisors and clinicians who need to know based on the student, location and situation.

Electronic signage is the second key element to database workflow automation. Many internal and external policies and procedures necessitate signatures, from progress reports and IEPs to clinical and nursing reports. Many technologies exist today that provide electronic signage features, including the latest versions of Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF. Of course databases such as SQL can be programmed to accept electronic signage on forms, reports, or wherever you deem necessary. While electronic signatures are becoming increasingly common across many industries, it is important to check with the laws of your state to ensure both: electronic signatures will be accepted on the documents you are programming, and the technology you’ve selected for electronic signatures is secure enough to meet those regulations.

Other Kinds of Data that Inform Decision Making

Academic and clinical assessments, Functional Behavior Assessments, and other assessments and reports are, in a way, also data. For example, the results of academic assessments are integral to guiding the proper selection of goals and lessons for a student. When designing a database, it is important to include these “bigger picture” data points in a way that makes decision-making more accurate and efficient. In the database we have developed, for example, the results of assessments automatically inform decision-making by pinpointing each student’s unique areas of need and helping to select targeted goals and lesson plans to meet those needs.

The Final Analysis – Benefits to Students, Staff and Organizations

Using technologies like automated/programmed spreadsheets and databases can save staff time, improve compliance, reduce error, fuel research with rich data, and most importantly, improve student outcomes both academically and clinically. Incorporating automated workflow into your solution will further save time and promote compliance to internal and external requirements.

The time of those working with students is precious. In our experience, this technology can save thousands of hours a year of busy-work for an organization while improving data accuracy.

Andrew Schlesinger is Melmark’s coordinator of program services.
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