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Software Review: Tableau as a Teaching Tool

Tableau is unique and a valuable teaching tool because it provides an easy interface for the creation of charts, graphs and even maps.  Students can explore data in sophisticated ways with only a short training session.  Even better, as students they can get free licenses for the software, allowing faculty to use it for classes without ensuing large financial commitments.

A map showing fatality and even types of different violent events in Africa

What sets Tableau apart from other data visualization or business intelligence software is its intuitive, user-friendly drag-and-drop interface. For more sophisticated applications this is supplemented by a variety of easy to understand menus. By using contextual menus and panels instead of typing in code, Tableau lowers the learning curve needed to create visualizations. For example, creating a line graph or a map is as easy as selecting the variables in question and selecting the appropriate type of visualization.

Classic tables like the one below are easy to construct and can also be augmented with color-coded hotspot analyses.

A highlight table showing the number of violent events happening in Egypt, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan broken down by Country and Event Type

Tableau provides the opportunity to construct data visualizations that are more complex than those generated by most traditional statistical packages.  For example, the graphic below compares the number of conflicts over time for four North African countries in a fairly normal plot, but add an additional variable, the number of fatalities by varying line thickness.

A line graph showing the trend of the number of violent events in 4 African countries (Egypt, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan) between 1997 and 2015. The thickness of the lines represent number of fatalities.

For classes working with data, Tableau presents a significant opportunity for instructors to integrate more data into the classroom, especially with students who might not have experience with more advanced statistical software. Making it easier for students to explore and understand data, as well as to ask their own questions through investigative learning, encourages them to gain a deeper appreciation for data as it relates to their discipline. In fact, as of the time of writing, Tableau is currently being successfully used in several of our classes at Grinnell College.

However, Tableau does have its drawbacks. In particular, visualizations created with Tableau are not as customizable as more powerful languages such as R or Javascript. In addition, Tableau is not created for data analysis.  It is a data visualization tool, not a statistical package. Another small downside is that data entered into Tableau must be formatted in a specific way.  While Tableau is able to do some data manipulation, spreadsheet programs like Excel are much easier for this. So, Tableau’s role in classrooms or in research might only be restricted to surface-level explorations of the data in question. Despite this limitation, Tableau remains a tool with great potential, especially in the possibilities it presents to the user in creating quick and easy visualizations.

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