Are you still relying on pen and paper to collect valuable behavioral data about your patients? If so, you’re not alone. Many ABA providers and staff in special education programs around the world are still using paper instead of online data collection systems.

But in an age where you can 3D print an entire house and live stream videos from across the globe on your smartphone, doesn’t this method of data collection seem strangely outdated?

Because we’ve noticed many of the providers who have gone through BHCOE’s quality assurance evaluation haven’t made the switch to technology-driven data collection systems, we decided to explore this phenomenon further.

We found some of the results surprising and hope this article provides insight into the best practices for you when it comes to ABA data collection.

The Importance of Data Collection for Children with Autism

As you already know, behavioral data is necessary to track the progress of individuals with autism. Behavioral data can help providers like you diagnose recurring issues, improve the effectiveness of interventions, and ensure patients are developing the proper skills for life beyond the treatment room.

In a domain where accurate and useful data collection is so important, it’s surprising that many providers seem stuck in the past, filling up cumbersome binders and filing cabinets with data sheets day after day rather than taking advantage of the latest technologies.

Many schools and centers have access to assistive technologies such as iPads and Smart Boards (Marcu, G., Tassini, K., Carlson, Q., Goodwyn, J., Rivkin, G., Shaefer, K., Dey, A., Kiesler, S., 2013). So it only makes sense to utilize these tools to streamline the data collection process and make data more useful to providers and parents alike.

How to Improve Data Collection with Technology

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to be using online data collection systems and the latest software and apps to record behavioral data.

A recent study examined staff members’ use of paper-based data collection in special education programs across 6 different schools and one treatment center. During their research, they also “identified opportunities for technology to improve sharing and use of data” (Marcu, G., et al, 2013).

According to the study, technology can help improve the data collection process by:

  • Improving collaboration among staff in order to create interventions and work towards goals as a team

  • Enhancing communication between providers and parents in order to make more significant progress in developing skills

  • Making it easier to share data with others in an engaging and more “palatable” way

  • Helping staff prepare and discuss important information more easily and efficiently so more time can be devoted to their individual students and patients

  • Eliminating the piles of paper that are impractical to share or use

  • Easing the burden of transferring data from paper into reporting tools

  • And much, much more…

But if technology can offer so many advantages to ABA data collection, then…

Why Are So Many ABA Professionals Still Using Paper?

Despite technology’s obvious benefits and ABA providers’ eagerness to integrate new technologies into their daily work, “technology is not being leveraged for the collection and use of student data” (Marcu, G., et al, 2013).

According to Marcu et al (2013), “[s]taff use paper almost exclusively to collect these data, despite significant problems they face in tracking student data in situ, filling out data sheets and graphs on a daily basis, and using the sheets in collaborative decision making.”

Researchers found 3 main reasons why so many staff still rely on paper:

1. “Data needs are complex and not standardized”

The individualized approach required in ABA treatment and other intervention programs makes it virtually impossible to create a standard for data collection. Instead, staff rely on their own data sheets as the “backbone” of their work with students – even if this results in a great deal of inconsistency in how data is collected (Marcu, G., et al, 2013).

Furthermore, the high level of individualization and flexibility within special education programs results in the development of complex systems and the need for different sheets for different data. It would be extremely difficult to find a technology that could work across the board in this domain.

2. “Immediate demands of the job interfere with thorough in situ data collection”

Since data collected needs to be accurate and recorded at the time it occurs, staff always keep a piece of paper nearby to record behaviors immediately. The problem is, “[m]any staff reported that they sometimes have to record data on sheets at the end of the day instead, though admitting ‘I have trouble remembering the exact details of all behaviors from one day’” (Marcu, G., et al, 2013).

Technology could make it easier to record these behaviors on the spot. But as researchers discovered, “time [is] the single most limiting factor” preventing staff from learning new technologies (Marcu, G., et al, 2013).  Without proper time and training to integrate technologies, it’s difficult to switch over from paper.

3. “Existing technology for data collection is inadequate”

Even if technology can drastically improve data collection methods and in turn improve the overall developmental progress for children with autism, it’s no good if it is impractical to the end user.

In Marcu et al’s (2013) study, staff concluded that the apps they tested on their iPads in the classroom were either “not practical for collecting data on multiple students,” limited in functionality, difficult to customize, or simply not user friendly.

Bottom Line: Find the Right Technology to Meet Your Needs

As Marcu, et al. (2013) discovered, “There is no existing system that is widely known and recommended for data collection.” However, technological tools will enable you to quickly capture and share data in order to improve collaboration and make more accurate, data-based decisions.

Paper data sheets are burdensome and difficult to share and use; therefore, we recommend making the switch to an online data collection system that fits your needs. It may take time to find the right technology in such a complex area of application; however, it will ultimately empower you to make a bigger difference in the lives of your patients.

If you are curious which ABA Data Collection Platform the majority of the BHCOE providers use, send us an e-mail. We’d love to share what works for many of the quality providers in the BHCOE network across the United States.


Marcu, G., Tassini, K., Carlson, Q., Goodwyn, J., Rivkin, G., Shaefer, K., Dey, A., Kiesler, S.Why Do They Still Use Paper? Understanding Data Collection and Use in Autism Education. (2013). CHI 2013: Changing Perspectives. Retrieved July 20, 2016, from

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