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Forum Guide to Metadata
NFES 2009-805
July 2009

Chapter 4. Implementing a Metadata System - Training Users to Maximize System Utility

Metadata is not an inherently well-understood topic, and many stakeholders may not yet likely to be familiar with the term. Thus, professional development must be provided to system users. In many environments, including education, readily available data tools are not used to their full potential because ineffective or insufficient training makes using the system more of a challenge than a benefit. Metadata system training requires commitment from the organization to identify or develop skilled trainers, customize training curricula to reflect specific user needs, and allocate professional development time to the full range of stakeholders upon initial system implementation and ongoing use. In addition, metadata training efforts can be challenging because, unlike other technology initiatives, in most cases the organizationís stakeholders have not asked for the system because they do not yet understand their need for this powerful information management tool. Without comprehensive training, it is extremely unlikely that stakeholders will appreciate the power and benefits of a metadata system.

Even the best designed metadata system will not work well if the people expected to use it donít understand its purpose or how to operate the system effectively.

The primary purpose of stakeholder training is to teach users to: (1) understand the purpose of metadata; (2) operate a metadata system effectively and efficiently; and (3) use metadata to inform their data use. Unless these major objectives are accomplished, only technical staff may have the confidence to use the metadata system and its potential value will never be realized.

Important considerations when planning a training program include

  • Introducing the concept of metadata. Different stakeholders will have a widely varying understanding of metadata. Therefore, training programs should be designed so that those unfamiliar with the concept will not be overwhelmed with technical details, while anyone with some familiarity will not be bored. One strategy for providing this type of customized training is to adopt a modular approach, with each module building on content from the previous session. Stakeholders can begin their training at the level most appropriate for their knowledge and experience. The initial training module might, for example, introduce the concept of metadata without delving too deeply into technical details and terminology. A subsequent module could begin to address more formal terminology and model relationships between metadata, data, and information needs. A third module might then describe the organizationís preferred practices for entering, managing, and using metadata.
  • Including meaningful, "real" examples to illustrate training points. Participants in training activities generally appreciate lessons that can be readily applied to their everyday responsibilities. Training is most meaningful when it is clearly applicable to the participants and their jobs. Good trainers often illustrate points with "real life" examples that are directly related to the duties of the participants. In addition to explaining concepts in understandable terms, examples demonstrate how to use metadata "on the job," and they effectively illustrate metadata's power to improve data use.
  • Customizing training to match audience needs. Not all stakeholders will use metadata the same way. For example, data stewards generally will be responsible for entering and updating most nontechnical metadata, whereas database administrators often are in charge of technical metadata. Program staff and other data users, on the other hand, need to focus on accessing metadata to improve their analysis and use of program data. Because each stakeholder group may use a metadata system in a slightly or substantially different manner, it often makes sense to develop separate training modules that can be combined as appropriate to meet the needs of each major user group. Customizing content to meet functional needs and minimize less relevant information generally makes training efforts more efficient and effective.

Teaching metadata in a training program

Effective training sessions often begin with ideas that stakeholders understand and then proceed to more advanced topics.

  • What are metadata?
  • How do metadata affect you and your data use?
  • Why does the organization need metadata?
  • Metadata system overview
    • Access rights and tools
    • Governance
    • Policies and procedures
  • What are the basic (or advanced) system components and how are they accessed?
  • How will metadata affect a user's understanding of data?
    • Data element definitions
    • Permitted values
    • Usage guidance
    • Restrictions
  • Usage examples (related to audience)
  • How are users expected to maintain system security?
  • How do stakeholders learn more about the metadata system?

See appendix D for a description of a metadata training program.

Metadata will be a new concept to many participants. Training stakeholders to use a metadata system does not necessarily ensure they understand when or why to use it. In addition to describing the concept of metadata, trainers need to explain why metadata are relevant to each stakeholder group's roles and responsibilities.

Don't assume that stakeholders understand the power and possibilities of metadata—teaching them how and, sometimes more importantly, why to use a metadata system are critical aspects of any implementation effort.
  • Policymaking staff might be shown how metadata can provide access to data usage instructions, term definitions, and interpretation guidance that will ensure their policy decisions are based on an accurate understanding of the data. Or, they might learn how the data are commonly used, and the implications of mistakes in collection and processing.
  • Technology staff might be taught that metadata will provide a clear list of technical attributes (e.g., data element type and field length) that do not need to be reconsidered each time an item is collected. They might also need to learn that metadata can identify sensitive/confidential data and improve system security, or that metadata will simplify the exchange of data between systems, both within and outside the organization.
  • Program staff might learn how metadata can help identify redundant data elements and collections, potentially reducing collection demands and improving data comparability and continuity over time. They might also learn that metadata can improve data checking and auditing to increase the overall quality of the data.

Regardless of the examples used, stakeholders should leave a training session with a clear sense of what metadata are and why using them is worth their time and effort. See appendix D for a detailed outline of a metadata staff training program.