The Digital Dashboard

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
  • Design, Development and Functionality:
  • Management:
  • 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?
  • 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.