26 December 2009

Data Visualization for the Classroom

I recently got to take my Data Visualization presentation out for a spin. I've been thinking about it for close to year. I was foolish enough to put in presentation proposals for such a session long before I really even knew what I might talk about. And unlike every other type of proposal I've developed, this topic was accepted for every single conference I submitted it to. This was just the prod I needed to finally get my thoughts organized.

We talked a bit about how a good visualization is like telling a good story. It also needs to provide some sense of interactivity with its users. And, it must be a little bit sexy---have some "glanceability." We also spent some time thinking about how to use common tools (like Excel) to improve our visuals (and also the ways in which data could be distorted).

I think improvements in data visualization have enormous promise for schools. As the Harvard Business blog noted earlier this month, the access to increasingly superior visualizations will help us navigate the information ocean we all find ourselves in these days. In particular, there are three major benefits:
  1. Great visualizations are efficient — they let people look at vast quantities of data quickly.
  2. Visualizations can help an analyst or a group achieve more insight into the nature of a problem and discover new understanding.
  3. A great visualization can help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed actions.
I was interested in what the participants wanted from their data. This was a room of ~50 educators, all from different walks of the school spectrum. I know that they are inundated on a regular basis with all sorts of data. What do they want it to do? They had some interesting answers. One teacher remarked that he would really like to be able to overlay his gradebook with his seating chart. A superintendent wants to mash student achievement data with Google maps. In short, they need their disparate data sets to come together. I love these ideas.

I did show off my revised report card idea and had some nice feedback. One person asked me on the way out if I had shown it off to any parents yet. I haven't. He was quite excited to run out and get some feedback on it. I really hope he sends me a line about what the reaction is.

Randy Krum from Cool Infographics put together a basic worksheet in Excel (using conditional formatting) for me to illustrate the first idea about grades and a seating chart. I am hoping that we might continue to look for some tools and ways for educators to get what they need from the information that is constantly generated in their worlds.

All of this makes me wonder what other intelligent things we should be doing with school data. Bar charts and line graphs are not evil---and they have their place in the pantheon of visualizations. I am just left thinking about what else we could be doing to get more meaning from the information that we have.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Your data theme, SG, is important at all levels in a school district.

At a recent Board work session, during an Iowa Lighthouse Project training session, we had a big discussion on the importance of Board members access to and ability to interpret data, especially student achievement data.

Rows and columns of numbers make my head swim, and I'm not alone, although a few "numbers people" seem to handle it well. Charts and graphs are key, but when we got to comparative data, the real conversation started...We talked about the quality of data visualization and quickly realized that, generally, the quality of data interpretation tools available to us was -- gotta be diplomatic here -- somewhat slapdash. For example, try comparing test data on two different charts that have different scales purporting to report the same info in different years. Or graphs that use different colors for different student groups, but are not consistent with the color that represents a particular disadvantaged group. The mind seriously balks at visual obstacles. (Imagine sitting there, everyone acting like they are "getting it," but you're mentally floundering, wondering if you're losing it.)

Your topic is important because not only do we need to be creative in data visualization, but we need to take into account the small details that make it all comprehensible when comparing multiple sheets of data-laden paper that are spread out across the table. (What if each of your SGHS WASL score cards above had different scales on the Y axis? Line steepness would be different between points, and so would the first "take" on the data.)

Please keep going with this. Parents will thank you, too. :)

The Science Goddess said...

I really think there will be many audiences for this---once we get it all figured out. I truly hope that the educational software companies with their fancy-dancy gradebook stuff are thinking about all the different ways data could be displayed. It appears that we know that there is far more in there than we are getting out.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

"It appears that we know that there is far more in there than we are getting out."

You hit that nail square on the head.

Teacher grade books could tell many tales that lead to student success if they were organized according to learning goals and stripped of all numbers that did not indicate summative academic achievement.

(You knew that already, but I thought I'd mention it just for drill! :) )

The Science Goddess said...

I think that reorganizing the gradebook helps in some ways---but at the end of the day, you're still staring at a bunch of numbers. It's the same visualization problem. This is why I'm hoping that the use of color and graphics can be interfaced with grades to produce better meaning.