Mining for knowledge

Mining for knowledge

September 1, 2002

British Columbia is known for its wealth of natural resources. From timber to gold, the province is a treasure trove of raw materials. It's also home to a wealth of education-based statistics that are worth their weight in gold to researchers. So, like the prospectors of old frontier days, modern data "miners" are rushing to a rich new vein of education data that's being collected and refined by Edudata Canada.

First started in May 2001, Edudata Canada provides researchers with a tool that enables them to conduct developmentally focused research to determine the quality of education that a child receives over the years. The centre also helps researchers assess how the students' experience translates into academic achievement. Professor David Robitaille, the centre's lead investigator, says they are using the database of collected statistics to provide researchers —who are involved in a number of education-oriented studies-with the raw information they need to investigate trends and patterns in students' achievement at the elementary and secondary school levels. At the moment, Robitaille says there are more than two dozen projects under way that are studying such things as the relationship between academic achievement and playing a musical instrument, and how a family moving from one town to another affects a student's performance.

Robitaille says the new database places B.C. and Canada at the forefront of education research. "To our knowledge, no such centre focusing on administrative and survey data in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 sector currently exists in Canada or the U.S."

What else makes this new resource so valuable? Each year, provincial governments in Canada spend about $40 billion on education. But without the proper data to feed into studies and analysis, it's difficult to tell just how well these dollars are being spent. It's also difficult to determine what can be done to better serve the needs of the knowledge-based economy of the future. With the new Edudata database, researchers and educators have access to the statistics they need to make informed decisions, and to develop policies and strategies that work.

With start-up funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and other sources, Edudata Canada has filled the Education Building at the University of British Columbia with the infrastructure necessary to gather a wealth of information: computer work stations; the required air, mechanical, electrical, and Ethernet upgrades; and upgraded security features to protect all that precious data. Using the infrastructure to collect and reorganize a virtual mountain of data is the job of Victor Glickman and his select team. A year and a half later, Glickman has created a highly secure, technologically advanced database that is a coherent, user-friendly resource.

While the database will initially use only B.C. statistics, work is already under way to adapt the system for other provinces, creating a national education research record. And because there's no reason to believe students in B.C. are fundamentally different from those outside the province, lessons learned by research conducted there could be applied (and shared with) ministries of education across the country or even around the world. That could help to make education data B.C.'s next big export.


Provincial ministries of education, as well as other organizations involved in the education sector, collect information from every key area of the public education system. From class size, to grade average, to teacher salaries, to the cost of new schools, a complete history of the education system is there to be found.

But there's one problem: the files don't have a common structure and are not always linked to each other. This means, among other things, that it's difficult for researchers to track changes over time, or across multiple information sources. That's the mission of the Canadian Education Data Network or Edudata Canada.

The network's goal is to raise the profile of quantitative research in education by providing user-friendly access to education data gathered over a span of 30 years. Much of the research could be aimed at better understanding the quality of education children receive as they move through the system, and how the experience translates into academic achievement.

Edudata Canada supports educational research, teaching, and policy development by acting as an information broker in three primary ways by:

  • helping researchers gain access to educational data and to related linkable databases in health and economics;
  • helping organizations that collect and hold relevant datasets to disseminate their data for research use; and
  • promoting broader access to, and use of, the resulting research, resources, and knowledge.

The centre provides a way to link educational data such as longitudinal data on students' achievement to data from related fields, such as child development, health, and labour economics. This allows Canadian public policy makers and qualified researchers to explore a highly detailed, well sign-posted trail through the past. Through their research, educational planners can map new routes for the knowledge-based economies of the present and future.


Edudata Canada's principal partnership is with B.C.'s Ministry of Education, which has provided a wealth of uniquely ordered student statistics. The Ministry was the first to employ a Provincial Education Number assigned to every student. The number allows researchers to anonymously follow the academic path of a student through the system and assess the quality of their school experience. The system tracks students so well that Alberta and other provinces are trying to develop a similar capacity.

Edudata Canada has also established research partnerships with the UBC Centre for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR), the University of Western Ontario-based Canadian Language and Literature Research Network (CLLRNet), and the North Vancouver School District. Together with CHSPR, they're investigating how to link datasets from health and education for approved research projects.

The partnership with CLLRNet involves extending the knowledge capacity of the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Edudata is working with CLLRNet to build a user guide for existing and new network research. The guide will increase research information and data exchanges to improve and expand complementary language and literacy research.

The partnership with the North Vancouver School District involves implementing an education knowledge management plan for the school district. The system is designed to help school administrators and teachers make informed decisions so that effective educational services can be delivered efficiently.

Edudata has also put in place a technology partnership with IBM Canada. The IBM hardware work group presently consists of four workstations, a pair of servers, and a private Local Area Network. The workgroup provides network resources and services to authorized clients.