If Your Product Is So Data-Centric, Maybe It Should Have Data Export?

Yesterday-ish, from Justin Reich:

I was also somewhat surprised to learn that in many systems, it is actually quite difficult to get a raw dump of all of the data from a student or class. Many systems don’t have an easy “export to .csv file” option that would let teachers or administrators play around on their own. That’s a terrible omission that most systems could fix quickly.

A couple years ago, working on an LMS evaluation, I kept getting asked what reporting features each potential platform had. Can this platform generate type-of-report-X? About 8 years ago, working on a ePortfolio evaluation, the same question came up — where are the reports? Does this have report Y?

I’d always point out that we didn’t want reports, we wanted data exports and data APIs that allowed us to generate our own reports, reports that we could change as we developed new questions and theories, or launched new initiatives in need of tracking. The data solutions we’re likely to see have real impact (with no offense to Reich’s Law of Doing Stuff) are likely to come from grassroots tinkering. Data that is exportable in common formats can be processed with common tools, and solutions built in those common tools can be broadly shared. CSV-based reports developed and adopted by Framingham State can be adopted by Keene State or WSU overnight. A solution one of your physics faculty develops can be quickly applied across all entry level courses.

What you want is not “reports” but sensible, easy, and relatively unfettered access to data. And if you don’t have someone on your campus that can make sense of such data, then you need to either hire that person, or give up on the idea that a canned set of reports are going to help you. When fields are mature, canned and polished reigns. But when they are nascent (as is the field of analytics) hackability is  a necessity.


57 thoughts on “If Your Product Is So Data-Centric, Maybe It Should Have Data Export?

  1. This has been an onging issue for SchoolTool, but it is not as easy as you might think to work out what a really usable dump would look like since there isn’t really a widely used specification and tools, and the data is complex and decidedly not flat.

    Dozens of times I’ve had this conversation via email, which usually ends with “We don’t currently have that, but it would be relatively easy to do if we could work out the right format. How would you like to see it?” I’ve never got an answer to that question. Including in the process of writing a $30,000 bid which I submitted a few days ago.

    I’m not trying to say it is impossible or not my fault, just that it is one of those “harder than it seems” issues in practice.

  2. Thanks, Tom. If you say it’s harder than it looks, I’m inclined to take your word. (By the way, your blog is one of my favorite things on the internet. I think of you as the Duncan Black of edtech.)

    On the other hand, I think there are *some* areas where a Big Dumb Table Join exported to CSV could be (fairly?) straightforward. When we did this research here:


    We basically took the “logged event” table of the Stanford ed2Go platform, and wrote a join that given any set of student IDs would export a big flat (joined) list of every action logged for that student with a timestamp and what ever other data we could attach to it. Because student success on things like a quiz question would lead to logging certain pages directly after the question we were able to deduce success or failure on quiz questions and the like. That sort of join didn’t take long to put together, even coming from a point of zero knowledge of the system.

    I’m guessing where things get hairier is where someone says “give me all data on student X”. That’s not going to be any sort of flat or parseable by the average person. But I’d be happy just getting joined exports from relatively granular tables — events being the most obvious, but maybe not the only one. I think you could do quite a bit just with that.

  3. Yeah, I was thinking I should clarify that exporting a LOT of data via CSV is easy, and we do it. The problem is more the “Can’t I just get EVERYTHING out in a CSV?” case. It IS an important problem for us though, because the big drawback of using the ZODB — an object database — instead of a relational database is you can’t just dig into tables, so it is relatively opaque outside the context of the application (or a Python script that imports a bunch of our objects).

    It probably would help if we had a better sense of just what technologies our power users would be using in this kind of context. It seems like there’s a pretty big difference in what kind of format is easiest depending on whether you’re using Excel (probably most likely), SQL queries, or some kind of scripting language or R (or something else). This makes us particularly reluctant to guess what the best format is ourselves.

    And thanks, Atrios is definitely my biggest influence, blogging-wise.

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