The Microsoft Business Intelligence (BI) team have set up the BI Labs, a place where they can share some of their experimental work. Don't get misled by the 'Business Intelligence' label, because their job is all about helping people make sense of the vast amounts of data that we're engulfed within. In education, there's a massive bank of student performance data (as well as financial and statistical data) that can be very difficult to interpret.  I've sat it meetings where the challenge has been to work out how to understand 1,000 rows of a spreadsheet or table, and then to work out who's doing well. And almost always a teacher or lecturer will be able to tell as much about a student from their one-to-one interactions as they will from a massive report - mainly because the student performance data is so well buried in the massive reports!

This problem isn't unique to education - it happens in virtually every business in the world. But in education, the expected outcome is normally different:

In Business, analysis is often done to summarise information - How's the business doing overall? Where's this year's profit coming from?

In Education, the analysis flows in two directions.

    • The first is the aggregated view - how's the school going to do in the exams this year? How does the budget look?
    • The second is the individual view - what help does this student need to progress? Who are the individuals that need more support?

And in many cases, systems have been built to primarily server the aggregated, rather than the individual view eg the needs of managers rather than frontline teachers and lecturers. (That's not just an issue in education, because finance/HR/ERP systems often have the same thing).

PowerPivot small screen shotOne of the most exciting things I've seen in years to address this is PivotViewer - an interactive tool that allows you to present data in a graphical way - so that in an educational context, you can make the students' faces be the visual key to the data. That's a much better way for a teacher or lecturer to see data - they can much more readily understand a picture of their class when it's actually presented as a picture. And the users can 'play' with the data themselves, easily digging into the detail to find what they are looking for.

To get an idea of what it is capable of, take a look at the UK Wedding Venue search on hitched.co.uk, which is using PivotViewer to allow website users to find their perfect wedding venue. It gives you a good idea of how powerful it could be if you linked PivotViewer to some of your education data, and how you could be using your student performance data to support learning.

What the BI team have now done is to release tools to allow you to link PivotViewer with SharePoint data and SQL Server Reporting Services. Which means that most education institutions will have a much easier time linking it to their own data.

All of the tools and resources to use this are available as a download from the BI Labs site. The BI team also run a BI Labs blog, and Dr Cristian Petculescu, who's the architect behind this, explains a lot more detail on his personal blog.