Collecting the right data isn't enough — colleges must know how to use it

The success of analytics programs depends on more than gathering data

The Gates Foundation has put out a call for a better national infrastructure for higher education data to give policymakers, parents, and students more complete information about access, outcomes, and cost. While new federal reporting requirements — and benchmarking opportunities that would come with them — are at least a couple years down the road, colleges and universities can and should move forward with data about their own campuses.

The New Media Consortium cites an increasing focus on measuring learning as one of the main drivers of ed tech adoption over the next year or two. In the newly released "NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition," the organization also highlights learning analytics as one of the most important developments of the year in educational technology for higher education.

Data collection around student performance has exploded in recent years, and many schools have figured out how to use the data to improve retention rates, make advising more efficient, strengthen classroom pedagogy, and offer the right services to meet student needs. But still, Jeff Ralyea, senior vice president of product management at Ellucian, sees that many campuses are lost.

“What we have found is that the schools, even if they have the data, they just don’t know where to start in terms of using the data,” Ralyea said.

Ellucian has been working on a set of guided analytics solutions that use heuristics to “teach” the program to anticipate desired analyses based on prior searches and user profiles. The higher education software and services company sees a strong desire for data-driven decision-making among its client institutions. This software makes it possible for a wider range of people to interpret the data in ways that can be meaningful for the organization.

Ellucian has also spent the last 18 months building out a higher education data model that encompasses all of the technology solutions and systems that exist on campuses and normalizes the data so information from disparate systems can be joined and analyzed together.

Like the Gates Foundation call, which would result in benchmarking opportunities for colleges and universities to compare outcomes, the Ellucian data model would create a common data structure.

“We want schools to be able to compare themselves to other schools and the only way they can really do that is if everyone is working from the same data framework, Ralyea said. The company is working with about 55 universities and a number of vendors to build out the model.

While colleges and universities are putting data analytics to use to make operational decisions, much of the focus has been on using data to improve student outcomes. Reaching at-risk students before they fail has become a key goal at many institutions, as has identifying high-performing students who are strong candidates for an accelerated completion timeline. In both cases, data about a student’s background, behaviors, and progress all provide valuable information for predictive models and proactive interventions.

Some universities are even using analytics to prepare for students before they get to campus. Recruiters can get a better sense of what types of students are most likely to be successful at the institution based on prior student data. And administrators can estimate the types of supports they’ll need for an incoming class before they arrive for orientation.

Ralyea says schools aren’t necessarily changing their admissions requirements based on the information but they’re moving more quickly to individualize services once students arrive — instead of treating the entire freshman class as the same.

“It’s helping inform that first-year experience,” Ralyea said.

And educators from coast to coast understand the challenges of the first year.

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