For the online learning world


Small Error Big Mistake

Throughout our series on data one thing should have become clear – data is only as good as it is accurate. In many areas of life ‘close enough’ is ‘good enough’. But when you are working with data you want to be as accurate as possible. Sometimes a small error can lead to a big mistake.

Small Errors

In a previous post we looked at the different types of errors you can encounter with data. Errors can creep in through mistakes, poor data entry, data duplication, information being truncated and sloppy record keeping. Often these errors are small and may go unnoticed. A misplaced comma, an extra space, a letter in the wrong place. In your Moodle installation these small errors could be inconsequential. They may make it a bit harder to find information, such as searching for a user that has their name spelled wrong. They could cause communications to go to the wrong person if there is an error in an email, mobile number or street address. If you are bringing in manual records you might assign them to the wrong user, which would not be a great look.

In general, these small errors will have relatively small consequences. But occasionally a small error will lead to…

Big Mistakes

Sometimes the severity of a mistake is out of all proportion to the error itself. Consider the following real-world examples:

  • A misplaced hyphen resulted in the Mariner 1 rocket exploding in 1962 after the error caused the rocket’s trajectory to be off and the rocket had to be destroyed to prevent it falling back to earth
  • An error copying data from one Excel table to another cost JPMorgan Chase & Co to lose $US6.2 billion in stocks in 2012
  • A Google forward slash error in 2009 caused the internet to break as any (which is every) website with a ‘/’ in it was considered harmful.

These mistakes are likely to be on a scale much larger than any you will face managing a Moodle installation. But there is still scope for a small error to cause you a lot of damage. Accidentally deleting a course with completion records could be a big issue if those records are required for compliance. Sending private, personal information to the wrong users could be a breach of privacy. Handling a date column incorrectly could cause you to miss a bunch of users when that date column will determine their inclusion. All of these errors could cause you a lot of lost time, trust and potentially money.

Prevention is better than cure

It is always better to prevent a small error than deal with the consequences of the mistake. What steps can you take to prevent errors when working with data in your Moodle installation? How about the following:

  • Always have a backup of your data
  • Take care when sorting in Excel – make sure you are sorting all of the data
  • Double check your work – think ‘measure twice cut once’
  • Sanity check your data – does it look right? Maybe have someone else look over it
  • Give yourself time; most errors occur when we are in a rush. Leave yourself plenty of room when working to deadlines so you don’t make errors when rushed.

Small errors can have consequences that range from the insignificant to the catastrophic. Errors in Moodle are unlikely to be catastrophic but could results in hours, days or weeks of lost work. Take care to avoid even small mistakes and have processes in place that allow you to rollback any errors that you might make.

Jeff Mitchell
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Jeff Mitchell

Jeff is passionate about the role of learning and development, and has a specific interest in how people and organisations can be developed in order to achieve their potential. Jeff has a keen interest in information technology and specifically data analysis and the e-learning space.

2 thoughts on “Small Error Big Mistake

  • That’s a great post – with such practical ideas too.
    You are so right, a small mistake can have massive impacts.
    I feel that in some ways the worst are the small data errors that don’t have an immediate or obvious impact, because they can have a cumulative impact further down the track if undetected.

    • That’s right Stu, and if they are small enough it can be tough to identify them.

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