The National Education Technology Plan released in December 2015 by the U.S. Department of Education emphasizes a high priority for states, school districts, and educational technology companies to expand and improve the use of learning, or data, dashboards.
The push for wider and better use of data dashboards—which allow educators to examine and connect relevant student data from multiple sources—is growing stronger as schools scale up the use of personalized learning.
“Learning dashboards integrate information from assessments, learning tools, educator observations, and other sources to provide compelling, comprehensive visual representations of student progress in real time,” the technology plan says, explaining that such dashboards give students, families, and educators “timely and actionable feedback about student learning to improve achievement and instructional practices.”
Andrew Calkins, the deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant competition that encourages personalized learning and is run by the nonprofit EDUCAUSE, said it’s all about helping teachers efficiently and effectively connect the dots to promote improved student learning.
“With the data assembled and synthesized, teachers can much more easily accomplish dynamic grouping, flexible schedule-building, and just-in-time regrouping,” Calkins said, pointing out that having the data all in one place takes the teacher’s role to a new level of coaching.
“Instead of manually managing goal-setting and tracking, teachers can rely on the data dashboard to do that part,” he said. “It has the promise to be a wonderful enabler.”
But how do schools put in place powerful dashboards? Education Week talked to experts in the field to find out what they think is the recipe for putting in place data dashboards that improve teaching and learning. Here are six Golden Rules:
1. Understand the Audience
There is a tendency, ed-tech experts say, to add lots of information into data dashboards simply because schools have it, without thinking about the goal of the dashboard: Who is it meant to serve and what is it meant to do?
Ray Rozycki, the vice president of education for Education Elements, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based for-profit company that provides blended-learning services, said the two key questions his company always addresses with schools when they sit down to create a dashboard are: “What is the purpose of the dashboard? And who is the audience who is going to be seeing it?”
For instance, curriculum directors need to see data from formal assessments such as those designed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. But if your target audience is teachers, then the dashboard will look completely different, he said.
Some schools have even taken their dashboards a step further and implemented additional dashboard interfaces for students and their families. According to the National Education Technology Plan, those kinds of dashboards “can offer promising opportunities to help students take control of their own learning.”
2. Master the Purpose
The purpose of a dashboard determines what kind of data you need and with what frequency the data need to be updated, so understanding the purpose of a dashboard is a key step.
Julia Freeland Fisher, the director of education research for the Clayton Christensen Institute, said there is a temptation for schools to have their data dashboards do two different tasks that don’t always work together. One is to provide student data, including formal assessments, and the other is to display data that teachers can use on a day-to-day basis to alter their teaching styles and techniques.
“You might want all of the data available, but you don’t need all of it every day,” she said, explaining that schools need to decide what is most important.
But Rozycki said for schools to build better personalized-learning programs, the dashboards need to go a step beyond simply offering formal assessments.
“We need to give teachers the information they need on a short enough frequency for them to adjust what they do in the classroom,” he said.
3. Connect Dashboard and Content Providers
Edi Cox, the executive director of online learning for the 42,000-student Horry County district in South Carolina, said her school system used a data dashboard for 1½ years, and it was “phenomenal” because it helped teachers customize their practices by using updated student data.
Then teachers started using content providers that hadn’t been integrated into the dashboard, forcing the district to temporarily halt its use.
“There is a huge need for the digital-content providers to work with the data-dashboard providers,” Cox said. “It’s a lot of effort. People have to come together.”
Fisher said schools need to be aware of what interdependencies they are building into their dashboards that could raise costs.
She suggested making content providers aware of the need for their data to work with a dashboard during contract negotiations, and, if possible, making dashboards flexible enough to accommodate different kinds of content providers.
4. Choose Data With Students in Mind
Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan who has studied and developed digital education tools, said important metrics that often get overlooked are “time on task” and “number of attempts.” He urged that schools look for content providers that can provide that data in addition to the number of correct and incorrect answers.
“The tech companies are thinking that the dashboards will drive the teachers, but I think for the mainstream teachers who are in it, what is going to drive it is being able to understand the kids,” he said.
Anthony Kim, the CEO and founder of Education Elements, said his company focuses on four vital elements teachers need to know to understand the whole student: standard-based data, emotional state, level of engagement, and mood or motivation.
“Education Elements typically monitors click usage and completion of sessions within content-provider software. The company will then run a formula against that data to illuminate patterns, such as how long students log in and the average time spent on a program.”
5. Organize Data Into Logical Groups
The beauty of data dashboards, ed-tech experts say, is that they allow teachers to view all student data in one place, giving educators the power to visualize operational and instructional, and even self-directed-learning, data side by side.
To be effective, a dashboard should organize data into the following logical groups:
• Operational information (such as attendance, class placement, socioeconomic status, special education status, and English-language/learner);
• Instructional information (school-specific data for monitoring progress and learning/growth);
• Progress and pace data; and
• Habits of success data, including self-directed-learning skills.
Calkins of EDUCAUSE said successful dashboards also use “simple, clear metrics.”
6. Start Simple, Then Grow Sophisticated
Horry County’s Cox said teachers have more data than they know what to do with. Being able to feed the data into a dashboard that can automatically group students based on their needs is critical.
But it has to be done right.
“If you give too much information, there is no way a teacher is going to be able to deal with that in real time,” Soloway of the University of Michigan said. “For mainstream teachers, that dashboard has got to be incredibly succinct.”
To prevent overwhelming teachers with learning analytics, he recommended that schools should start with a simple dashboard, then roll out additional layers of data as teachers become more comfortable with them.
Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Data Dashboard Priorities