Useful Data Dashboards: Tell Me the Current Weather, the Forecast, What to Wear, and Why
I recently had a great discussion with the team at eSpark in Chicago about their data dashboard. (We don’t actually use them since they are for iPads – although their product looks very promising). The conversation centered on what dashboards we have found work for our teachers and administrators after using and piloting over 40 different products since we started this journey. Here’s a rundown of core features and approaches that we have found useful for improving the educational experience of our students. Since we haven’t found any perfect dashboards just yet, I’ll use inspiration from an organization that has some incredibly well developed dashboards – The Weather Channel.
Question 1: What’s the current weather? (How is my entire class of students performing?)
When teachers log into a program, this is the number one question they want answered. The answer should be given to them in a digestible format in 0 clicks. What’s digestible? Let’s apply some design principles from the classic weather map.
- Whole nation at a glance: I don’t have to click on any drop down menus or take any additional actions to compare San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. I see every state and their status in one shot. If I want a quick sense of how Miami is doing, I can get it from this graphic. Remember that teachers know their students and can draw meaning from comparisons. Enable that.
- Customizable colored coding or info-graphic that logically expresses degree: I instinctively associate orange with warmth and blue with cold, so I can create meaning from this map instantly. Temperature is not a true/false label so don’t signify something is hot with a simple true/false flag or check mark. Teachers need to see the degree of priority and urgency.
- A key and range: Imagine you have no idea what Fahrenheit is, and you’re given this map. By looking at the key at the top and seeing the maximum and minimum values, you can create some meaning behind the numbers. Without it, you’re blindly guessing at what temperatures are hot or cold. We teachers don’t have time to go looking up conversion charts and scales in some manual; put everything together.
- Time: If we were able to do a time-lapse animation for the above map, we’d immediately be able to grab meaning from when things occurred. How quickly is the cold front coming up to Chicago, or is it already here? The most precious resource in education is time, and it’s also the most universal language.
- Historical and national context: Although missing from this map, knowing where things stand in the greater history of things immediately creates meaning from perspective. This year is ten degrees hotter on average compared to last year. And the record for the hottest temperature ever was 134F in Death Valley. That’s tells me how I’m doing. Teachers and their students need to be pulled out of their classroom bubbles and understand where they stand in the big picture. It’s too easy to fool yourself by being the biggest fish in a small pond.
Question 2: What’s the forecast? (What’s coming up and what’s the predicted growth?)
To enable teachers to take further action, they also need to be able to predict what’s coming up next. We all know weather predictions are not 100% reliable, but they do help us be prepared.
- Upcoming events: Snapshots in time are great, but anyone can do that. Predicting what tomorrow brings is when the true expertise of meteorologists and the magic of weather forecasts come to life for your average person. Equip your teachers with predictions so they can evolve from being reactionary to being strategic in their curriculum design. Universal screeners given at the start of the school year are a great starting point, but don’t ignore the stream of formative data from the software.
- Chances: If I see a 20% chance of rain, it’s low on my priority list and probably won’t even take an umbrella with me that day. But if Friday had a 90% chance of rain, I would literally change my schedule to properly deal with the weather. In the intricate web of standards, skills, and building blocks, we can make fairly sound predictions about which ones our students will struggle with based on their performance on earlier assessments. Why not let your teachers know that this Friday five of his/her students are going to start a new standard that they’ll probably need additional support with?
Question 3: What should I wear? (What should I do based on this data?)
The most common questions everyone asks are “So what?” or “What’s my next step?”, but that assumes you understand what the data means. Each online curriculum provider has its own system of points, syllabus completion, mastery, progress, etc. It’s a mess and incredibly confusing to new users. Go one step further and translate the data into meaningful actions for teachers.
- Suggest what to do: The data visualization shown above from www.swackett.com is so simple but absolutely ingenious. I had some family members visit from Puerto Rico, and when I told them it was 30 degrees outside, they had no idea what to do. Does that mean I need a hat? Ski mask? Too cold to even go outside? If you’re not familiar with the data and what it means, you can’t take any action. But with Swackett, it suggests what you should wear. Now my Puerto Rican family members can interpret the data to a high enough degree that they can act upon it. After one or two days of testing this system, they can self tweak to slightly over or under dress based on Swackett’s suggestions, but it has equipped them with information that’s meaningful. Too many times I see teachers open up a fancy dashboard full of data and have no idea what to do next. Find tools that are intuitive enough for people to use immediately without reading through manuals or conversion charts. This dramatically reduces the learning curve and increases uptake. If there are supporting lesson plans or actions for teacher to do in the software, it should be shown next to the suggestions and be one click away from being acted upon.
Question 4: Why should I believe you? (What evidence do you have to prove these assessments and predictions about my students?)
Next time you watch the news, notice how the weatherperson on TV always explains the air streams, moisture, and other characteristics of the “weather system” to build up evidence to support his/her predictions. Give teachers that same level of supporting evidence and more.
- Give the evidence: I’m not a meteorologist and have zero expertise in how weather systems work. During the newscast, I’m given enough information to understand the foundation of the predictions so they don’t feel like random ideas. However, teachers are trained in their craft and have informed opinions about the education and assessment of their students, so they need more evidence. For the early stages of buy-in, this is crucial so they can judge the validity of the data and predictions being presented. Show them the actual assessments taken by students that the mastery rates and progress indicators are built upon. Show them the behaviors the student is exhibiting to make them a priority. Assuming these are valid and teachers buy-in, deeper implementations are empowered by this evidence being readily available when in-depth analyses are needed for a student. As usual, this information should be 1-click away whenever a teacher would want it.
One quick but important note – be sure to find products that do not hide all of this information from the students. If you want to empower your students to become independent, intrinsically motivated learners, you need software that gives them full ownership of their performance and removes the teacher as a bottleneck for messaging. This applies from PreK and up. You’d be amazed what young children can do when you coach them on what success and progress look like and turn them loose. Or look to the million of teenagers and adults playing World of Warcraft or Halo for days on end due to the feedback loops and personal growth profiles each program provides. Creating and marketing a sense of longitudinal growth is essential for prolonged motivation.
The bad news is I have yet to see an online curriculum provider with a dashboard that I love. The good news is I’ve seen promising features emerging and developers can take inspiration from other industries that have been in the data visualization game much longer than education. At the end of the day, always test test test. Get demos of a few products and use them with a small team of people and students in a supplemental structure. You’ll learn an immense amount of information about what you actually like, but you never know what you like until you try a few flavors. Good luck!