The University of Alabama is a poster child for harnessing big data in education and reaping big benefits. With more than 38,000 students, the university has a sea of data, but in the past, Alabama’s data analysts had to manually pull information and transcribe it into spreadsheets. It was a tedious, time-consuming process that took weeks or even months.
Now, using big data analytics, they can pull data, perform analyses and produce reports in minutes. Administrators have at their fingertips all the information they need to make decisions and implement policies. They’re able to quickly evaluate what-if situations and spot patterns with students. Using analytics and data visualization has transformed the university’s operations, recruitment and retention efforts.
And Alabama is just one of many universities using big data and analytics to fuel innovative changes:
- The University of Central Florida uses data visualization to create and meet the provost’s challenging 2020 goals.
- The University of Idaho uses analytics and data visualization to create a new, interactive way to share data with dozens of different constituents.
- The University of Louisville created a primary data platform to support the university’s strategic planning process in just 60 days.
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A recent report from MIT Sloan Management Review, Analytics as a Source of Business Innovation, validates this growing trend. For the first time in four years, study results showed that a wider use of analytics and a greater focus on applications has resulted in the increased ability to use analytics to strategically innovate.
Big data in education: Turning data into strategic insights
The report also showed an increase in the effective use of data. As you can see from Figure 1 below, the percentage of respondents reporting that they’re able to effectively use data for strategic insights rose 6 percent. And there was a 3 percent increase in respondents reporting that they have access to useful data.
Figure 1: More organizations are turning data into strategic insights (Source: S. Ransbotham and D. Kiron, “Analytics as a Source of Business Innovation," MIT Sloan Management Review, February 2017).
While you’d expect analytical innovators to have an edge over their less analytically inclined counterparts, you might be surprised at how wide the gap truly is.
While the MIT Sloan Management Review survey focused on business organizations, I’m happy to report that we’re seeing similar gains in higher education as more and more institutions invest in data management, analytics and modernizing information delivery to decision makers. For example:
- Sinclair Community College uses visual analytics to attract students, ensure degree progression and completion.
- Des Moines Community College is using analytics and data visualization from SAS to access, integrate and manage data to help improve student enrollment, retention and graduation rates.
- Valencia College staff is able to explore data through interactive analytic visualizations anywhere the need arises, fueling data driven decision making and reducing the requests for ad hoc reports more than 60 percent.
Big data in education: Analytics fosters many ways to innovate
The MIT Sloan Management Review report categorized respondents based on their level of analytics maturity. Analytical innovators, the most advanced category, “have an analytics culture, make data-driven decisions and rely on analytics for insights and innovative ideas.” The next level, analytical practitioners, “have adequate access to data and are working to become more data driven.” Analytically challenged are the least advanced organizations, relying more on intuition than data for decision making, and “they struggle with data access and quality and lack data management skills.”
While you’d expect analytical innovators to have an edge over their less analytically inclined counterparts, you might be surprised at how wide the gap truly is. As shown in Figure 2 below, analytical innovators are 60 percent more likely than analytical practitioners to use analytics for innovations in processes, products and services.
Figure 2: Analytics fosters many ways to innovate (Source: S. Ransbotham and D. Kiron, “Analytics as a Source of Business Innovation,” MIT Sloan Management Review, February 2017).
In higher education, the University of Oklahoma is an excellent example of an analytical innovator doing just that. Instead of relying on intuition to predict which students will enroll and what actions recruitment officers should take to attract them, the university tackled the problem with big data and analytics.
Lisa Moore, an Institutional Research Analyst at Oklahoma, used SAS® and two years of admission data to create four different predictive models using decision trees, logistic regression, forward stepwise regression and backward stepwise regression. The project was completed in five weeks, and the models achieved 89-92 percent accuracy.
Moore provided decision trees to recruitment officers, and the visual aid was instrumental in helping them determine the most appropriate actions to take in enticing students to select Oklahoma. In fact, the director of recruitment told her, “I did what you said, and BAM! These kids enrolled ... it was kind of creepy.”
Innovating with analytics resulted in the university’s largest and most academically prepared student body ever. It had more National Merit students than any other public or private university. And Oklahoma’s not stopping there – now it’s applying analytics to innovate in multiple areas, including selectivity, retention and student satisfaction.
Big data in education: Sharing data helps organizations succeed
Another clear tie between innovation and analytics is effective data sharing practices. The MIT Sloan Management Review report found that “organizations with a high ability to innovate share data both internally and beyond company borders at much higher levels than other companies: 80 percent of these organizations report sharing data internally, compared with 53 percent of other organizations” (see Figure 3 below).
Figure 3: Sharing data helps organizations innovate (Source: S. Ransbotham and D. Kiron, “Analytics as a Source of Business Innovation,” MIT Sloan Management Review, February 2017).
Western Kentucky University is a prime example of this type of data sharing, with many different audiences needing many different types of reports and analytics. All of that information is shared across the institution, according to Tuesdi Helbig, Director of Institutional Research at WKU.
“Our executive team is interested in revenue, enrollments and strategic planning for the university as a whole … the deans and departments are interested in the students in their college and department and what’s going on with them … and advisers are interested in who’s at risk. They need detailed contact information and risk models of student data so they can intervene when necessary,” says Helbig.
For example, WKU’s colleges, departments and advisers all use attrition risk models to guide their efforts to improve student success. And they’re now applying analytics and predictive modeling to assess admission standards and predict student enrollment for more precise budgeting.
And not only do WKU’s executives and deans use big data in education to get answers to their questions, but they’re also finding answers to questions they didn’t even know existed – fertile ground for innovative new practices. “They’re asking more complex questions, which gives us the ability to provide better services to our students,” says Helbig.
Big data in education: The impact of using analytics
The MIT Sloan Management Review report made it clear that businesses are reaping the innovative benefits of analytics, and I want to make it clear that we’re seeing those same results in education.
From the University of Central Florida to Western Kentucky University to the University of Oklahoma, institutions are using analytics to innovate, ask “what if?” and push the boundaries of what’s possible. It’s been an exciting journey – and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
- Interview The University of Alabama makes better decisions through education analyticsAt the University of Alabama, the Office of Institutional Research and Assessments use analytics and data visualizations to uncover better student outcomes.
- Series Evolving your institutional insightBig data in education can help administrators understand college applicants and students – including which ones will struggle and why.
- Article Five tips for faster, data-informed decision makingThree educational institutions share how they use data visualization to drive data-informed decision making. Five tips that apply to all organizations.
- The big effects of big dataHow is big data affecting consumers? Is it making positive change in the public sector? What do younger generations think of big data? Find the answers in this interview with author and professor Bart Baesens.