Ministry of Education
In establishing the Education Counts website as the trusted source of statistics and research on education in New Zealand, the EdCounts team has learned how to make one website serve audience groups with widely diverse needs.
The Education Counts website is the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s 'one-stop-shop' for data, research, and information on education - across early childhood, school, college, and tertiary learning.
Usage of the site has grown year on year, registering 3.5 million page views in the year to October 2022, and almost one million users, which is pretty incredible given New Zealand’s population of five million. Users include teachers, administrators, policy-makers within the education sector, researchers, parents, and the wider public.
And therein lies the key challenge for the website’s management team: meeting these groups' very different interests and needs.
One of the mantras of New Zealand’s education system is ‘evidence-based practice’, so there’s not only high demand for the education data and practice information on the website - but there’s a recognition that it’s consequential.
Hence the site’s mission: "Promoting informed decision-making in the education system through the provision of high-quality information and advice."
As manager of the site, Dean Alexander says simply: “Our aim is to be the best. That means being the best education sector information and analysis shop in the world.”
Teachers apply the guidance about ‘what works’ from the Best Evidence Synthesis section; policymakers and administrators inform their decision-making with the site’s research, statistics, and monitoring publications; and parents and whānau make school selection decisions with the help of the interactive ‘Find Your Nearest School’ maps.
“We’re catering for an audience along a complete spectrum,” Dean says. “Some people want very simple pictures. Some want complex descriptions. Some want predefined measures in spreadsheets or pivot tables, while others want a database of raw data.”
For some of the site’s user groups, such as researchers, the adage ‘less is more’ doesn’t hold up: when it comes to data, they want to access it all. That means the most common information design strategy of reducing complexity by abbreviating and simplifying is off the table. Instead, the team uses other strategies, principally:
Education Counts content was initially developed and maintained on a Ministry network drive, using templates designed by Squiz, with the site HTML hand coded. The site was migrated into the Squiz DXP Content Management in 2006. This allowed the site to grow, and other divisions and groups within the Ministry to take responsibility for their content, with Dean’s team maintaining standards, web accessibility, and consistency.
Dean’s colleague and Web Administrator, Vanessa Poutoa-Chongnee, says, “I see this as guarding the style. We will look after every page, and we will ‘own’ some pages ourselves, particularly those supporting families and whānau, and the wider community. But there are more and more people wanting to manage their parts of the site and for it to be even more responsive to their particular customers’ needs, which I think is a really good improvement, impossible without the CMS.”
The team works with Squiz to upgrade their web platform to take advantage of technology advances most recently upgrading to version 6 of Squiz DXP Content Management, enjoying the redesigned editor and developer experiences. “For a web person, it’s a pleasure to use.” Web Advisor Louise Howie says. “And it’s very easy to get used to. Even if we hadn’t had a familiarisation session with Squiz Customer Success, we probably still would have easily picked it up.”
And the team is excited about the ever-evolving capabilities of the Squiz platform. As Dean Alexander puts it: “As the technology forges ahead, we’re sort of catching up behind them and seeing what we can use to improve our products and provide a better service to our customers. An example is refining proximity search in the Find Your Nearest School search-driven map interface, to make school zones clear right down to the individual property level. “
Education Counts sources data from within the Ministry of Education, provided from early childhood services, schools, and tertiary institutions. It also uses bespoke research and evaluation work undertaken by the Ministry, including work undertaken as part of international research studies, using sources such as the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Data source applications and formats vary from API endpoints to PDF files, spreadsheets, CSV files, and business intelligence reporting tools.
The website provides very popular directories, with contact details and information about all of New Zealand’s education institutions. The early learning service and schooling directories are so popular that they are updated every 24 hours. A subset of directory data is also provided on the search-driven map interface of Find Your Nearest School.
Automating what was previously a partly-manual update process has saved the team a lot of time, around a day a fortnight, and allowed them to update the data each night - with the addition of a third capability of the Squiz DXP. Squiz DXP integrations service monitors the daily update for the two largest directories, providing automated alerts whenever an update fails. “This is useful to us. Previously, the update flow might happen - but the data would not get updated for some reason, and we couldn't tell that it was happening. We had to assume that the data flows were working”.
As well as ingesting data from various sources, Education Counts also makes a range of directory data available via APIs, widely used by businesses such as real estate agencies and others to easily incorporate education provider details into their own products.
Since its beginnings as a small, hand-coded website, the EdCounts team has kept its web platform up to date, enabling them to keep improving its website and providing a modern digital experience. Now upgraded to the latest version of their search tool Funnelback, the team is using the in-built analytics dashboard to better understand how capabilities such as intelligent signposting and search personalization can be applied to further improve user experience.
Through continuous improvement like this, the team has grown its site into the trusted hub for New Zealand education-related data, research, and evidence-based guidance.