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The World of Educational Dashboards
Facing distinct challenges not present in the corporate realm

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Monday, December 3, 2007

More sophisticated educational dashboards may contain complimentary operational management and governance functionality as well, aiding in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act as well as other federal, local, and state mandates—from facilities management to attendance tracking. As education becomes more progressive, the lines between student management and school management are becoming blurred, creating enormous new opportunities for vendors of data integration and dashboard products. 

Fundamental features of a student assessment dashboard will include:

·         Real time management of student reference information and test content (questions and answers)

·         Marks management and comparative assessment: Tracking of student progress against state standards

·         Accessibility for students, parents, and educators

·         Security management and protection of student data

·         Role-based functionality

·         Complex trending and reporting in order to better understand and remediate student deficiencies.


Additional functionality and features may include such things as:

·         Lesson and activity management and testing content creation

·         Class management and scheduling

·         Management of extra curricula activities

·         Student disciplinary and registration management

·         Collaborative stewardship (teacher-family) of student development

·         Multi-lingual empowerment


Beyond student assessment, an ambitious educational dashboard will tackle areas of:

·         Financial management

·         Human resources and administration management

·         Compliance


One of the biggest challenges to successfully implementing an educational dashboard will be attaining operational consistency. Often there will be threats to data integrity and business continuity due to the inevitable reliance on an antiquated technical infrastructure at institutions of learning: No matter how data is pushed or pulled, no matter how sophisticated or ambitious the dashboard architecture may be, information will originate from school servers in some shape or form. Great attention must be paid to the data lifecycle (and data assets) from the beginning of the definition phase because, in an educational environment, responsibility and accountability for data assets are frequently ill-defined if at all. (Happily, although it is unlikely to trickle down to K-12 education any time soon, many institutions of higher learning—such as University of California Berkeleyare starting to put formal data stewardship programs in place.)

Dashboard data may be coming from different schools, different districts, even different states, provinces, and time-zones; it then will have to be merged with state standards, learning content, student information systems, and other varied data stores. Modularity will be critical. Sets of business functions that address different business segments—i.e. student assessment, school budgeting, human resources, food services, inventory, etc.—should exist in a somewhat self-contained framework. It is one thing to track and report on a student’s progress and effectively manage their achievement, but it’s a whole other ballgame to balance school enrollments and procure textbooks. An open and service-oriented dashboard platform will be vital. Modularized functionality that can be quickly wrapped up and exposed to data consumers will assure that the dashboard will be able to hold its business relevance for a long time and that common manual workarounds (such as the infamous islands of Microsoft Excel data) do not crop up in upstream or downstream business processes. Pre-agreed upon XML standards that model student assessment data will also help ensure not only better data integrity and controlled data redundancy but more robust operational continuity as well. Different standardized models of data exchange will probably be needed for each different functional area of a dashboard that goes beyond student assessment. Both data and application architectures will quickly get complicated, especially when ad-hoc reporting and OLAP type analysis are required.

Quality assurance practices for educational dashboards are famous for being cumbersome and risk prone. Consider these substantial impediments:

·         A large number of geographic locations are capturing, creating, and sending data to the dashboard.

·         Each geographic location may have its own unique set of infrastructure constraints.

·         Assuring that each geographic location has performed adequate unit testing is very difficult.

·         It is impossible to perform a thorough end-to-end QA test—both manual and automated—of all pieces because many components exist outside any domain of control.

In fact, some problems with data integration and backward compatibility will not get exposed until QA starts. Project managers must be prepared for this ahead of time. When one has to deal with educational infrastructure, there should be no assumptions—from browser compatibility to server uptime to proper data recovery practices. In fact, before approving and funding an educational dashboard project, a small discovery project should be commissioned. Such an undertaking will take stock of the current state of infrastructure—both hardware and software—and make sure that risks and potential caveats due to “old technology” or lack of best practices are well understood. Something as silly and simple as a failure to backwardly support legacy malformed HTML can throw a wrench in your dashboard plans.

Although there will be unique challenges to the creation, implementation, and maintenance of educational dashboards, essential best practices of Business Intelligence will apply. At the highest level, the benefits of an educational dashboard look very much like those of a typical BI dashboard: users apply the best possible business processes against understandable and custom tailored classifications of reputable data in order to perform improved analysis and reporting, and acquire decision making in real time.

Achieving the consistent ability to do basic student performance analysis is daunting—project risk is high by nature; time to market is long due to the reliance on third party providers of learning content, lagging school technical infrastructures persist, as well as ever-mutating state educational standards. Thus, adding more comprehensive functional components to an assessment dashboard should be undertaken with extreme caution. Get the basics right first! Most school systems and states commence their educational dashboard projects by tackling the student assessment piece first, subsequently fulfilling broader business and technology requirements—in finance, human resources, and state compliance—effectively merging governed student bodies with well governed school systems.


For more information on William Laurent please visit www.williamlaurent.com

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