Sunday, March 17, 2013

ASCD 2013: Meet the New Data Tools

They're the same as the old data tools. 

I'm at a conference this weekend. It's ASCD's annual conference. For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, it's mission is to develop "programs, products, and services essential to the way educators learn, teach, and lead." It is my all-time favourite conference and the place where I get the greatest amount of professional learning.

Like most conferences, there is an exhibit hall here...a place for vendors to strut their stuff. I like a brisk walk through the aisles. I don't like stopping long enough for a badge scan (and the ensuing spam in my inbox), but it is always good to see what the trends are. Or, if you're like me, keep an eye out for what's happening with data visualization options for education.

Spoiler alert: It isn't pretty.

I should clarify here and say that there are no data viz tools specific to education. Rather, I was looking for software that helps capture and report educational data: gradebooks, course/content management systems, and so on.

The first two things that caught my eye were meant to be more traditional tracking/reporting tools. I talked to reps from each company, asking them about the development process for their products. When I specifically asked who determined what their reports looked like, they said "our software engineers." I pushed a little further---didn't they have anyone with data viz expertise at least provide some input on things? Nope. End of I moved on.

The third vendor had a content management system for teachers to build online lessons. It was connected to a reporting tool that could show the teacher progress, notes, etc. I had a lengthy discussion with a rep here, not because their stuff is particularly good or bad, but rather about the theory that underpins the need for the software. For example, they had previously built a "standards-based gradebook" based on teacher input...only to discover that the tool didn't represent best practices in grading. What had happened was that the teachers wanted to say they were doing that sort of grading, but in name only. The philosophical differences that should have driven the tool didn't get implemented. Ah, a company that is starting to wise up. Their visualizations for teachers were okay---better than I had seen, but nothing that knocked my socks off.

As I was leaving the exhibit hall, I ran across one tool that did. And it pains me to say the name, because there is so much else I do not like about the company...but it's Pearson. Good use of sparklines...well-selected color schemes...even some bean plots to show some of the distributions. Someone has been providing good counsel on what the best charts are to use for the various forms of data in the system, and I applaud that.

I'm still keeping an eye out for additional tools for schools. If you've found a vendor that you think deserves a shout-out, let me know and I'll add them to the list!