Connecting data systems to seamlessly share information doesn’t just alleviate headaches for educators and district officials — it also benefits students. That’s what motivated Roland Antoine throughout his career in education and keeps him inspired in his current role as assistant superintendent of technology at Dallas Independent School District (ISD) in Dallas, TX.

We chatted with Roland about his approach to solving data challenges, introducing data standardization to schools, and empowering K-12 professionals to ask for what they need.

You began your career as a teacher and assistant principal before moving into ed tech. How does your early experience as an educator impact your approach to data in the classroom today?

It’s always been my perspective that data needs to help students.

When No Child Left Behind was enacted, systems began generating a lot of data that didn’t make sense together and couldn’t be used in a way that helped students. None of the systems talked to each other. For example, one system might list gender as “M” and “F” while another lists it as “male” and “female.” Because data wasn’t standardized in one format, you couldn’t collect it in one place.

Data is at the core of what we do in education, but very little attention has been paid to making it work in the way it does in the financial sector or healthcare. You might look at test score data, but students are tested in the spring for things they learned in the fall. If they missed it, it’s too late. We have to get to a point where we’re collecting and using data to help students in real time.

What do you believe was the turning point in districts seeing standardized data as a priority and getting their systems talking to each other?

I started my role as director of learning technology services at the Texas Education Agency in March of 2020, the Monday after they declared a federal emergency. Even though school districts had technology systems, none were prepared for the pandemic.

I participated in the Ed-Fi Alliance’s Fix-It-Fridays where folks from school districts came with questions. They were practically pulling their hair out because systems were not built to translate data from a remote learning platform into something simple, like attendance data. People were in tears. They were at their wit’s end.

If you can’t take attendance properly, you can’t tell if kids are engaged with learning. And if your systems don’t speak the same language and can’t talk to each other freely and quickly, you’re spending too much time and money just trying to get data to line up. I remember one school district had a single database administrator who spent the whole day getting information from the LMS into the collection system for attendance.

What do you recommend when it comes to getting people on board with standardization and data governance?

It should be gradual and inclusive. Lots of folks have been doing things a certain way for a while, and you don’t want to come in and drop change on them. You want to introduce new technology alongside them while showing the benefits of operating in a new way. Ultimately, the goal is to democratize data and information use.

Another issue is that when people can’t access the data they need, they find another way to generate it. For example, in our student information system (SIS), we have discipline reporting tools that aren’t used. Instead, the department custom-built something that uses a lot of text-based data, which isn’t standardized.

We need to ask why they’re doing it this way. Do they not have access to the part of the SIS where the data tool lives? We have to make sure we provision data to the people who need it so it’s not sitting somewhere collecting dust.

What do you foresee as the next iteration of data in the classroom, and how will it benefit educators?

Artificial intelligence. And there are ways to leverage AI, not in some crazy science fiction way, but to immediately respond based on analysis.

For example, I have a friend building an application (a bot), and I told him the bot needs to be able to intervene as soon as a student makes a mistake instead of waiting for the student to ask a question and allowing them to practice something wrong. Augmenting teachers with something that provides this level of attention and handles low-level issues frees them up to focus on more intensive support.

K-12 educators need to speak up and tell vendors what they need and what they want to do. The discussion needs to happen more and louder.

I always ask, “What are you trying to do?” And the answer doesn’t have to be technical — I’d rather a non-technical answer. Our goal isn’t to have another system that shoots out spreadsheets but something that helps people do what they need to do. It’s up to technology vendors to solve these challenges and meet these needs.

How has being part of the Ed-Fi community inspired you in your pursuit to ensure data works for students?

One of the coolest things about participating in Fix-It-Fridays is being among a dedicated group of people trying to achieve the same goal. We’re not just tech people trying to solve tech problems —  we’re tech people solving human problems. We’re birds of a feather.

Do you have any more advice or words of wisdom?

Iterate, be creative, and remember that failure is always a part of the path to success. When you’re trying to wrangle your district data into something, don’t be afraid to reach outside the box or talk to your vendor. If something doesn’t work the way you need it to, ask why.

Roland Antoine is currently the Assistant Superintendent of Technology at the Dallas Independent School District. Previously, Roland served as Director of Learning Technology Services for the Texas Education Agency, Deputy CTO for Dallas ISD, and assistant principal and special education teacher in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Connect with Roland on LinkedIn

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