Some thirty years ago when I was training to be an accountant we changed from using Lotus 1-2-3 on Apricot PCs to using early Excel* on early Macs. Since that time few have been the weeks that have gone by when I didn’t use Excel for one thing or another. It is a versatile, efficient and (if you know how to drive it) creative means of doing many things involving numbers and text (its especially good for text manipulation and clean-up).
So based on all that I would have the following suggestion for schools.
I have seen Excel used for so many things in school, from very basic list manipulation all the way through to fully featured Parents Evening appointments systems. And frankly, for the following reasons, it has to stop.
- It is a chore that can be done more efficently. When we have considerable issues with workload the more automated we can make data analysis the better. Unless you are dealing with exactly the same dataset each time then the use of Excel involves adding to workload. And often it is out of hours workload which imposes additional pressures on the workforce.
- More often than not, this level of data manipulation and analysis is carried out by a Deputy or Assistant Headteacher. This means it is a very expensive way of working (unless you’re relying on that out of hours thing).
- Linked to the workload issue is that of succession. When the data guru leaves you are left with the issue of having to either replace that person like for like, Excel skills and all, or training someone up to take over. Either way, working someone else’s spreadsheet is rarely a good experience.
- And finally on the workforce element, you are restricted to that one person doing the job. If they are sick, or overburdened with other work, then who is going to create the analysis?
- There are issues with accuracy. Any complex data analysis can lead to errors creeping in (especially when undertaken by a tired deputy on a deadline). Why have a situation where every school is testing a similar spreadsheet for, say, working out Progress 8. The hours spent will rack up and many will be left with a spreadsheet that has a flaw in the formulae. Which could be a disaster.
- There are often issues with consistency. Rarely have I seen data analysis presented via excel the same way twice. The desire to tinker, to add more information, charts, pivot tables often leads you to be looking at different styles of analysis year on year. This makes meaningful longitudinal comparisons harder to make.
- And finally there is my biggest bugbear. As soon as you send the sheet out to people the data you’ve delivered is out of date. Everyone has their own copy. Which they all change a little and before you know it there are dozens of different versions of your data flying around that you have no control over. Yes, I know about Google Docs and Office 365, but yes I know about Google Docs and Office 365.
There are obviously occasions where there is a need for ad-hoc data analysis when Excel can be of use. My very strong advice would be that you keep that kind of use to a bare minimum. Use it to prototype and then get it automated.
So I’m obviously not an advocate of teachers using spreadsheets. But I would go further than this.
I see no good reason to teach children how to use Excel either.
“But”, I hear you cry, “spreadsheet skills are greatly sought after by industry.” Yes, you’re right, they are. But I’ll let you into a little secret. Industry are better at teaching people to use Excel than schools are. Indeed, there’s a whole industry dedicated to it, such is level of spreadsheet skills that people come out of schools with. And that isn’t a dig at schools. It’s a recognition that some things are better taught when you know how you are going to use it. The very versatility of Excel I discussed at the beginning means that different industries use Excel in very different ways. And they’re better taught by someone who is expert in the use of spreadsheets in the context they will be used in.
By all means give students templates to use for things like science data analysis and other such uses, but don’t expect them to produce their own. In the time that schools have, few children learn how to use spreadsheets to any useful level to ensure that they would create the right thing. Unless, of course, you are planning a party or perhaps still running a video rental store.
And now I’m just going to go away and produce a spreadsheet of just how many friends I have left in the school ICT community.
* Other spreadsheet packages are (apparently) available.