July 22, 2014

The Digital Dashboard
By Lane Mills
January 8,2008

You can access your district's key performance indicators at a glance.

Driving down the road, its often good practice to keep an eye on your dashboard to make sure your car's systems are operating efficiently and effectively—just ask anyone who has ever run out of gas. Digital dashboards are the equivalent for your district's data and performance indicators. Often designed to mimic an automotive dashboard's gauges, these applications can be simple or complex depending on your budget and needs. The main purpose of dashboards is to provide information in quick fashion from a variety of sources to your users in one, easy-to-use display that promotes understanding of your district's functioning on key performance indicators (KPI). Composed of tables, graphs and gauges, numerous dashboard applications are available to provide summaries, warnings and indicators of health, often in real-time. Dashboards, as performance management tools, can help monitor the myriad systems within a larger school system—from human resources and financial operations to student data and information technology projects. Dashboards can be stand-alone, server-based, or browser-based installations. Widget type applications are also gaining usage.

Some benefits of dashboards:

  • A common interface for users can minimize support and training costs
  • Clear visualizations of data can help improve understanding of the data
  • Integrated reporting tools allow for quick analysis and ad-hoc reporting
  • Decision-making can be facilitated by having readily- accessible interpretable data
  • The alignment of goals and resources with outcome indicators is promoted
  • Users can drill-down to see and manipulate the underlying data
  • Ease of use encourages improved analysis of changes in performance over time
Getting Started with Dashboards:

Ensuring that your dashboard solution is effective for your school district begins with establishing what really needs to be measured. These KPI should be the main focus for all of the information on the dashboard. Careful thought should be given to choosing those data indicators that maximize value to your organization. As with your auto dashboard, there is a limit to how much information you can process and use at one time. Communication among district leaders in conjunction with technology staff is key to choosing the right indicators. Whether your dashboard is populated from an existing data warehouse or isolated data sources, clean data is a must for this type of performance management application to provide an impact for your district. Aside from cost, other basic considerations when thinking about developing a dashboard for your district should focus on:

  • Design, Development and Functionality:
    • Is it easy tdevelop or refine displays on the dashboard?
    • Are design tools appropriate for your level of user?
    • How will alert status' be set for the various indicators (e.g., When attendance drops below 90%, the gauge should reflect red and state the problem).
    • Do the dashboard objects help identify trends and issues or is the application a collection of "chart junk?"
    • Do the dashboard views support your various audiences (i.e., parents, Board of Education, community), or should the dashboard just be for internal use?
    • Can data be exported to common formats for further analysis or reporting?
  • Management:
    • Can information be provided or controlled based on the level/role of the user?
    • Does user management integrate with existing directories?
    • Will the implementation of the application require extensive training?
    • How is the dashboard information populated-is it extracted from an existing data warehouse or will it require some data massaging and clean-up?
    • How often does the data need to be refreshed?
    • What are the infrastructure and bandwidth requirements for supporting the application?

No longer are digital dashboards accessible only to large corporations and the business sector. Today, many school systems are starting to implement dashboards for increased efficiency. A properly designed digital dashboard can help promote a better understanding of your district's data and performance and help spot problems before it's too late to intervene.

Helpful links:

Crystal Xcelsius
Dashboard Spy—Great Web site and blog for all types of dashboard and available software applications.
Perceptual Edge—Web site of Stephen Few, author of "Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data."
SAS for Performance Management

Lane B. Mills, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership program at East Carolina University. A former Assistant Superintendent for Accountability and Technology for a North Carolina school system, Dr. Mills was a 2004 Technology and Learning Ed Tech Leader of the Year finalist.

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