SA Dept for Education strives for school excellence with cloud and Power BI

South Australia has set itself the goal of building the best education system in Australia over the next ten years – speeding the growth of every child, in every class, in every government school[1].

The SA Department for Education has developed a School Improvement Plan that encourages each of the 512 Government schools to identify priority areas for attention and then establish a school improvement planning cycle that promotes continuous improvement.

School improvement has always been a priority for the State – but when annual school report plans were reviewed it was clear that some schools made exceptional advances, others were slower to improve.

With this initiative South Australia is injecting more structure and rigour into the process.

Core to that is data – providing insights to school leaders at a very granular level about student achievement and growth, student wellbeing and organisational health.

To make that information accessible, but ensure it remains secure and well protected, the Department has developed the school improvement dashboard – a customised business intelligence platform developed using Microsoft Power BI and delivered via the Azure cloud which provides the insights needed to help school leaders create a world-class education system across the State.

James McNeill is the manager of business intelligence solutions and services for the Department, and has overseen the development and deployment of the dashboard which went live State-wide in September 2018. Every government school in South Australia will put their new school improvement plans into place starting 2019.

Early testing of the Power BI solution, undertaken with a dozen school principals, revealed just how intuitive it is, requiring little to no formal training – an important consideration for a State education system with schools widely dispersed from the Anangu lands right down to Mount Gambier and everywhere in between. A couple of three-minute explanatory videos on YouTube were enough to get school leaders up and running and primed for school improvement planning.

McNeill outlines the journey that SA Education is making.

Q: What information did school leaders have access to in the past?

James McNeill (JM): Previously we had reports on student achievement in, say NAPLAN, or student achievement in secondary school completion, and administrative data sets like attendance plus parent opinion survey results. We also have reports on student wellbeing, which is quite a unique feature of the datasets in South Australia; we have a comprehensive measure of student wellbeing in the middle years. All of these things were reported on quite separately, and schools could go to one or many different platforms to look at various bits of data.

Q: And now?

JM: The Power BI implementation involved exposing all that in a single data model that was well integrated, so from one product they could have an overview of all these different areas of their school.

The dashboard has indicators of several different achievement areas plus student wellbeing, staff engagement and culture, and parent perspectives. It draws them all together and says that as a leader you need to be aware of all these different things, you need to be investing in your student wellbeing as well as their academic outcomes; you need to be investing in your school culture and engagement instead of just attendance, and to do that in a balanced and manageable way.

Q: How did you go about developing the dashboard?

JM: We took a very agile approach. We roped in about a dozen school principals who volunteered to participate in, essentially, a key user group, and we met with them regularly. One thing that Power BI was very good for was developing quick prototypes, so we could throw together something that had a look and feel vaguely like what we wanted and had some different types of slices and visuals to show how it might look and have the key users work through it, and they would then give us a whole lot of feedback. We did several iterations – the platform really did support very well the quick development and rapid turnaround of prototypes.

The business case around Power BI was that the interface was intuitive and fairly easy to approach, and there wouldn’t be a large user training exercise required. We found that those 12 Principals were able to log in and navigate the product with very little extra support and make sense of it, and they started giving some really good feedback. Some of the other things that came out quite early was Principals’ ability to use it on mobile, that was something they’d never done before.

The fact that it was on the cloud and integrated with Office 365, which quite a number of our schools are using, meant that they were able to access it anywhere. Previous systems had been tied to the corporate network, which meant that only some computers in the schools could access it, and they couldn’t get at it from mobile devices, they couldn’t get at it outside the school admin area. So this meant that there was much broader access to the product – quite early on there was some strong feedback that that was a really strong feature for it.

Q: Tell us a little about the data foundations?

We are using SSAS Tabular for the data model, so that’s all kept centrally on premises, and we’re using on premises data gateways. There was a number of reasons for that, and largely because we wanted to do a fairly complicated level of row level security. There’s multiple layers where, for example, a site leader at a school can see the schools in their partnership, which is essentially their local area, but they can only see the names and IDs of the students in their school, so we have two tiers of access there.

Similarly, if a user is at a higher level, if they’re an education director who’s the line manager of the Principals, they can see all of the schools in the State, but they can only see the names and IDs of the students and teachers in their portfolio, which is a group of partnerships. That really required some sophisticated integration with our network.

Q: What do the school leaders get from the dashboard?

JM: The front page is set as a dashboard with an overview, and it draws their attention to the area of their school that they need to focus their attention on. So they can go from a very high level picture of the entire school, or indeed, the entire partnership if they want to zoom out further, and then they can navigate through to some tabs that sit behind that with more detail to break it up into different year levels, different cohorts, and then from there export lists of students’ names if they want to then go and organise interventions for those students or sit down with the teachers and discuss plans for those students.

There’s also the ability to focus in on really specific groups. Power BI in a tabular model means that they can just flick on a few slices and then look at the wellbeing for any combination of priority groups that they wish to look at, whereas before they couldn’t get that.

We also made extensive use of a fairly new feature called Bookmarks in Power BI, and there’s a number of priority groups which we identified, such as students that were previously high achieving but were no longer high achieving. Schools identified that this was a group they wanted to be able to easily identify and work with to engage and extend and get them back up to that high-performance level.

So we could just put in a bookmark that says, ‘show me all of the students who were previously high achieving and are now no longer high achieving’, rather than getting them to compare two different reports to try and work out who those students were.

We’ve got dozens of bookmarks scattered throughout the product to allow them to pick up very particular groups of kids at different points where they can very easily identify groups that they want to work with and treat separately from the main cohort.

Q: How has the dashboard performed from a technical standpoint?

JM: Even when we have had, I think, upwards of 5,000-page requests from Power BI in a single day, the performance of the system has been excellent. Even though we’ve got millions of rows of data at a unit record level in the model, it really does handle slicing and dicing very quickly and efficiently. It uses a lot of memory to do that, I think it sits at about eight gigabytes of memory, partly as a result of the row level security, it needs to maintain a lot of separate caches of the data, but the actual user experience has remained very responsive, very quick and easy. There’s no sense of it bogging down and grinding under load, so we’ve been very pleased with the performance side of it.

Q: What’s next?

There have been a couple of other groups adopt Power BI for smaller scale things, so, our Records Management team have developed a Power BI report that looks at Ministerials and workflows, and ICT has developed some dashboards to track some key metrics.

I expect that we’ll have a dozen more products through Power BI within the next 12 months. At the moment we’ve targeted just school leaders, because our priority is school planning, but there’s discussions as to what we can make available to other groups in the department.

What we’ve done essentially is breaking the ice, the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible with it, so we have it out there now, we have the infrastructure in place, and there’s a lot of interest and excitement from other areas in leveraging that now that they’ve seen what it can do.


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