Using Visualization Tools to Get the Bigger Picture

Posted by Devin Vodicka on August 24, 2010

As you dive into the flow of minutia that comes with the opening of a new school year, don’t forget to take a moment now and then to stick your head above water and remind yourself of the Bigger Picture.  There are some excellent new visualization tools that can help you do it.  Let me show you what I mean.

A Blueprint for Reform is a 45-page document that outlines many proposed changes in the federal role with respect to public education.  You can use visualization tools to get a sense of the report even if you don’t have time to wade through all those pages.  As an example, I’ve created several graphics using  Many Eyes, a beta project out of IBM that lets you upload data (for example the text of a document) and then analyze it in various ways.  Creating a “word cloud” is one example.


Some of the words that jump out are not surprising.  We would expect that the Blueprint would reference schools and students.  I was most struck by the way that the word “will” stands out in the word cloud.  Some of this may be due to the fact that the document describes a desired future, but there may be other implications as well.  Also of interest is the pervasiveness of “college” in this document for K-12 education.  This is reflective of the emerging emphasis on college and career readiness that we can expect to amplify in the near future.  For those interested in hints about future funding, the phrase that jumps out to me is “grants.”

Another visualization that I created pulled two-word pairs instead of singletons .  This visual suggests that the U.S. Department of Education will be shifting away from formula-funded resources to more competitive grants.  We can also see that the emphasis on student groups such as English Learners is not likely to diminish.  Other phrases that stand out include career-ready, effective teachers, and charter schools.  I’m pleased to see student growth emerge as a concept that may help reframe our accountability systems.

My next visualization of the Blueprint was to create a “phrase cloud” that indicates relationships between words in the Blueprint.  This diagram helps to reveal the thinking behind the organization of the Blueprint.  For example, states will work with districts, districts will work with schools, schools include support systems that will improve, develop, strengthen, and expand practices and programs.  It is also interesting to see nonprofits included as partners to districts.  Notice also how each mention of teacher (or teachers) is connected to principals and leaders.

Given my interest in data and technology, I next created word trees that isolated those terms to provide a quick visual synopsis of the role of those items in the Blueprint.  For technology, this graphic reveals how it is embedded within the Blueprint as a tool to improve instruction and address student learning challenges.  This word tree also shows a connection in the document between technology and engineering and mathematics—this is reflective of the expansion of this reauthorization away from just English Language Arts and Mathematics.

The word tree for data reflects an emphasis on systems, identification of local needs, and also includes a number of data elements that we can expect to see included in the new accountability model.  Many of those data elements, including disaggregated analyses, are familiar to us but some—such as levels of support and working conditions—will require entirely new data collection systems and methods.

You can explore the online graphics or you can use the data set to create your own visualizations.  I am hopeful that this visual tour of the Blueprint has been a helpful introduction to what appears to be an ambitious agenda for educational reform.  It is my belief that we as educational leaders must not only leverage existing technology tools such as these online visualization resources, but also network and connect with one another to share information and knowledge as we continue to navigate this transition into a new era of public education.


Banish E-mail Overload

Posted by Devin Vodicka on April 26, 2009

I have fond recollections of the early days of e-mail.What a cool way to share information and, at the same time, save our schools printing and duplication costs, not to mention the staff time spent making copies and stuffing mailboxes.  I worked with like-minded colleagues to install an intranet program just so we could exchange internal e-mails among staff.  In those days, our main challenge was to get people to log in and take a look.

Fast forward ten years and you might have seen me tremble—literally—as I opened my e-mail for the first time each morning.My bleary eyes bulged at the sight of 100 or more chronologically listed messages.California Department of Education listservs, county office bulletins, colleagues, parents, concerned citizens, e-blasts from numerous publications that I had at some point asked to receive, and notifications from various services overflowed my screen.I lived in constant fear of losing key information, forgetting to show up at important events, and generally being unresponsive to the overwhelming flood of incoming mail.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.  In conversations with other school leaders, I heard their frustration with their own attempts to manage e-mail.  I began to approach the problem analytically.  I read books, pored through articles, watched videos, and connected with bloggers.  I found some ways of processing, organizing, and responding to e-mail that fit my own way of organizing time and tasks, and I set out to implement them.

Despite a few bumps along the way, I definitely feel now a greater sense of control and much less anxiety.  I have systems to identify which messages are most important, which ones require responses, and a sequence of steps to deal with those tough e-mails that require interpersonal responses.  While some days are tougher than others, I am able to start every day with an empty inbox.

In addition to improving my effectiveness, that empty inbox symbolizes a refreshed way of thinking as well.For me, this shift has been transformative, and so I feel compelled to share some of what I’ve learned.I have created some resources to accelerate your own learning process.  As an orientation, I recommend the 7-minute Quicktake called Taking Control of Email that is posted on the TICAL website.  Additionally, I have created a blog by the same name with links to articles, videos, and other resources that I think may be useful in your journey.  Also, TICAL Leadership Cadre member Gabe Soumakian has posted an excellent presentation on e-mail etiquette.

You, too, can achieve a sense of control and comfort with your e-mail!


No Time to Lose

Posted by Devin Vodicka on November 9, 2008

An intensified, heightened sense of urgency regarding the need for change in schools was the most powerful lesson I took away from my recent experience as one of seven ACSA interns at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Additionally, I was struck by how the process of innovation at PARC is so completely intentional and purposeful, promotes integration across disciplines, and relies on frequent collaboration and the infusion of powerful technology resources—all of which contrasts starkly with how we do things in schools.

PARC is well known as a center for innovation and technology advancement. Each day, our group listened to distinguished PARC staff members present their latest inventions, greatest insights, and descriptions on how they came to their current point in the discovery process. At the end of the week we interns presented a synthesis of our experience to the PARC staff. The process provided powerful learning and prompted some profound conversations about the way that we prepare students for success, our internal systems to promote collaboration and innovation, and the ways in which we might apply these lessons for the benefit of the educational community.

We were so inspired by our experience that we have developed a schedule of conference presentations to continue these conversations with school leaders across the state. Our first efforts were to present at the ACSA Delegate Assembly and the ACSA Leadership Summit this month. We are looking forward to future opportunities at the annual CUE conference and at the Leadership 3.0 Symposium. We have also created a blog that contains reflections and resources we hope will be useful to you, our fellow administrators.

While I’m not sure that schools will ever see as much focus on innovation as we saw at PARC, I am definitely a believer that promoting more of it would be a good thing for education. The challenge is daunting, but our students and our communities need us to rise to the task, take some risks along the journey, and work together to help schools better support the needs of 21st century students.

A member of the TICAL Leadership Cadre, Devin is Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Carlsbad Unified School District. Read Devin’s profile.