I have owned a lot of cars. Too many, perhaps. Frequently I think back to that first car of mine: a bright yellow, 1977 Ford Pinto with a six cylinder engine. It was fast, light, and dangerous. Most of my cars and trucks since then have been improvements. (However, even with the Chevy 350 engine I put in a 74 Vega, it still needed more to be an improvement.)

Dashboards have changed a lot since 1977. There is almost no similarity between the dashboard of a ’77 Pinto and a 2015 Explorer. The basics are there – miles traveled, fuel and speed and a handful of idiot lights. A late-model car often has so much on the dash that one needs to spend a fair amount learning what’s there, what the options are, and what various icons and lights mean.

Last week a friend sent me this link The laws of shitty dashboards. There is a lot of truth here (however, more sensitive readers will need to work to overcome the overuse of the word shitty.) It has a lot of corollary to higher education dashboards as I’m pretty sure all higher ed dashboards are crap.

The dashboard on my Pinto told me how fast I was going and how much fuel I had. There were also a couple of small gauges for oil pressure and coolant temperature. If bad things happened to certain engine components, an idiot light would come on alerting the driver, “Hey, this is bad news!”

And the values changed on the gauges. Moment by moment.

And the information was useful. It was immediately actionable, if needed. Or I knew that immediate (at least very soon) action was needed.

In a new Explorer (or most other new cars), things aren’t much different. There is more information, such as average fuel economy, 4WD drive status (including amount of action directed to front and rear axles), navigational information, cell phone status, and sometimes much more. There are often choices in how to display the information.

In the end though, the key focus points are speed and fuel, followed closely by miles traveled (which is a function of speed, fuel, and time). These things still change moment by moment. The rest of the stuff is to help us feel in charge of the greater range of options available and ideally reduce the distractions faced by modern drivers and their toys.

The collection of dashboards I’ve seen for higher ed all seem to miss the point.

First, and this is my rule, “If the data only change once a year, it ain’t a dashboard cuz it ain’t got no dash.”

The speed of a properly functioning car can be changed immediately by application of accelerator or brake. Fuel can be added as needed (and stations are available).

Enrollment, for legitimate institutions at least, cannot be affected the same way. There are windows of time and action, and rules of process, as well as the influence of markets.

I sure as hell hope that degree output cannot be controlled like the speed of a car. If it can be, something is drastically wrong.

Law #6 from the article I linked to is applicable in a lot of ways.

Because it was useful in a PowerPoint doesn’t mean it’s useful on a dashboard.

Bingo! If a dashboard is somehow appropriate (and I am pretty sure a dashboard for state or national higher education issues never will be appropriate), there is probably little likelihood that if it is a good dashboard it will consist of charts from assorted PowerPoints.

There is an awful lot of literature on dashboards, decision support systems, executive information systems, scorecards, and the like. Before you build one, please RTFL – Read The Friendly Literature and always RFC – Read For Comprehension. There is already enough crap on the Web and enough bad decisions in higher ed. Let’s not add to it.




Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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