Visualizing a Learning Environment

| October 28, 2011

In an educational environment that’s rich in technology, regular evaluation of how programs are going is extremely important–as important as staying afloat of new developments in technology. How can design help with these evaluations? Check out this article about how Interactive Things helped the Zurich International School on that very project.

The Zurich International School

The Zurich International School is a nonprofit day school for students between the age of 2 and 18 that is spread across a few campuses comprising an international education program of around 1425 students from over 55 countries. It’s an extremely technology-rich learning environment with over 45 interactive whiteboards in classrooms, wireless internet, various e-learning tools and personal laptops for all students in upper and middle school.

The school’s mission states, “We are a learning community of students, faculty, staff, and parents. At ZIS, educational excellence commits us to Learn, Care, Challenge Lead.” These four categories are further explained through bulleted points. In order to continuously actualize upon their mission and philosophy, ZIS staff regularly surveys parents, teachers and students on how they are doing, and then evaluate that feedback in published reports.

Asking for Data Visualization Help

To visualize these reports and make them more effective, ZIS went to Interactive Things, a design and technology studio based in Zurich, Switzerland. (They also publish the site datavisualization.ch, which is where they explain their project.) The first task was to have the designers examine the graphs in past survey reports and propose how to improve them. Interactive Things offered the following guidelines about readability and color composition, as well suggested the survey data be sectioned according to the four aspects of the mission statement, rather than put one long continuous report. They also suggested making both digital and print versions of the graphics in order to make them easily accessible to all members of the community.

Once the proposal was accepted, the team tackled collected data from the past two years of community surveys and distributed the data according to the members it related to–Learn includes feedback on the diversity of resources that teachers use in classrooms; Care includes feedback on the service learning project that each student must do to graduate; Challenge includes feedback on the technology issues students face and the responsibility of the school to remedy them; and Lead includes feedback on the impact of various educational technologies from the perspective of teachers.

A key strategy to visualize the complex information was to keep it simple. “We always paid attention to not add much more complexity than necessary at this early stage,” they explain. A key challenge was designing for both screen and print, as fonts and colors would look different in each medium and therefore individual pieces needed scrupulous setting and adjusting.

Finally, Interactive Things created a summary handout of each of the four panels on a folded poster, which included a cover and introduction page for the report. A creative addition was the cover design, which was an arrangement of each current student and teacher’s country of origin. See their post for a detailed explanation and more photos.

A Model Project

When evaluating feedback on technological resources in schools it’s extremely important to formulate information in a way that is understandable and available to all members of the community. Toward this end, Zurich International School’s collaboration with Interactive Things was very much in line with its mission to be a united community of students, faculty, staff, and parents. Furthermore, the artistic aspects of the project, such as the handout cover, could help represent the school’s mission to outside audiences quite effectively.

A project like this is interesting because not only is it a great model for visualization evaluations of school or organizations, but it can also be applied in so many different contexts. For example, I can image a educational lesson on technology and its impacts on various communities that would require students to try to  visualize data in this same way. Finding ways to make survey information come alive could certainly help develop visual and critical thinking skills. Imagine a doubly useful project in which students are taught to visualize evaluative survey data for their own school–a data set that is relevant to them and beneficial for the whole community. It would be easy to set up a school club or activity to train students to do this (say, through further collaboration with design studios like Interactive Things) and thereby make it sustainable. Creating an annual report something like the handout IT created could also be a creative way to keep local communities–and especially parents–abreast of their schools’ technological offerings.