Tips for making the most of your analytics software

Education institutions share their recommendations

By Georgia Mariani, SAS Global Industry Marketing Manager for Education

As your K-12 or higher education institution continues on its journey to data-informed insights, how can you ensure you’ll get the most value from data management, reporting and analytics solutions? An important step is empowering users – from education administrators to teachers and the public – to generate trusted knowledge and insights. This means giving them the right training to harness big data in education so it’s easy to generate the results they need.

But there can be lots of pitfalls along the way. In fact, you probably know colleagues at other institutions with failed data analytics and reporting initiatives. Often, stakeholders can’t get what they need quickly and easily – and can’t actually gain the deeper insights they need – so they can’t use big data to drive decisions that transform programs, curriculums and student outcomes.

To help you realize the most value from analytics technologies, learn from the experiences of our customers. Their recommendations have been captured in this article, which focuses on helping you successfully empower your various users. It complements our previous article on getting started on your analytics journey.

Provide training and self-help materials

Many education professionals are not savvy about data or analytics. They need help learning how to understand data and interpret analytical reports correctly before they can make informed decisions. So invest in user training and self-help resources, which can take many forms, such as video tutorials. Some institutions use a train-the-trainer approach, identifying key stakeholders whom they can educate and turn into effective, confident data consumers. Others provide hands-on user workshops in computer labs. Many utilize training provided by software vendors.

For instance, SAS provides free training "how to" videos, tutorials and demos to learn tips and tricks for working with SAS software. Regardless of the type of training used, complement it with additional self-help materials, such as user manuals and data dictionaries that define value hierarchies, data elements and more. These materials can be offered in hard copy or through context-sensitive online documentation.

Provide easy-to-use data visualization tools

Data visualization tools close the gap between your stored data and the people who need it to make fast, data-informed decisions. They address the complexities of working with massive data sets – and make it easy to move from data to instant insight in two ways.

First, visualization tools eliminate the need for the back-and-forth conversations between users and IT (which often lead to misunderstandings and costly overhead) and wasted hours waiting for each iteration of analysis and reporting. To be effective, people need answers fast enough to efficiently explore a problem and go through iterations quickly and easily. And second, data visualization tools allow users to explore all relevant data quickly and easily. For example, they can slice and dice data, look at more options, uncover hidden opportunities, identify key relationships and make more precise decisions faster than ever before. And they can perform interactive, ad hoc visual data discovery, exploration and visualization for lightning-fast insights.

For example, SAS Visual Analytics handles these issues for both end users and IT. For end users, it provides an interface specifically designed for nonprogrammers. They can easily create hierarchies on the fly (e.g., year, semester, month, day, department and faculty) and simply drag and drop the variables they want to explore to uncover trends and correlations. SAS Visual Analytics provides powerful predic­tive analytics and visual data exploration functionality to users on any web interface so anyone can easily process data using in-memory computing. Users can quickly design reports that are attractive, interactive and meaningful, then easily distribute them via the web, Microsoft applications or mobile devices. You can even create reports that enable recipients to slice and dice the information however they need to, using filters and drill-through capabilities to further explore data on their own.

The data has to be presented in an easily consumable format. Don’t create just charts and graphs or tables of numbers. Make sure that the visualizations are connectable as well as actionable so users know what to do with it.

– Karl Konsdorf, Director of Research, Analytics and Reporting, Sinclair Community College

Collect user feedback continuously and act on it

Immediately after the launch of dashboard, start gathering feedback from users about how they are using the system and ways to improve it. For example, you’ll want to find out if you are delivering what people want, how reports and interfaces could be improved and what’s not proven useful to them.

You can collect user feedback through many channels. Some SAS education customers organize regular sessions with all types of stakeholders, where they record all the comments and suggestions, prioritize recommendations and implement them where possible. It’s also beneficial to meet with stakeholders regularly to discuss data and reports in detail. For example, you may find that the reports you are providing are too high-level; users need to be able to drill down into detail, such as profiles for individual students. You will find it helpful to create a template of reports so users can validate that any changes meet their expectations. Also, many customers track report usage. This lets them quickly determine the key users and the top reports accessed in the dashboard. All of these mechanisms allow you to capture valuable feedback and act on it, which creates happy users.

By using SAS Visual Analytics, administrators can view the information themselves anytime, anywhere, giving what one campus president described as the ability to see what is going on from my mobile device while I’m sitting in the drive-thru at McDonald’s.

– Daryl Davis, Director of Institutional Research, Valencia College

Develop in-house expertise

SAS reporting and analytics software is incredibly diverse and powerful. So to quickly realize its full value, SAS customers interviewed recommend developing in-house expertise through two channels. During development, use SAS Consulting® for expert, on-site assistance and knowledge transfer. Go a step further by taking advantage of  online SAS courses, training classes, software manuals and programming guides. SAS has resources for everyone, from beginner to advanced software users.

Universities and colleges typically have an office of institutional research that executes and manages all data management, reporting and analytics activities. But this isn’t always the case for K-12 districts. Yet it’s vital for school districts to have at least one person who is dedicated to becoming an expert in SAS software, developing and executing strategy, creating reports, educating people, answering user questions and more. Without sufficient focus and commitment, reporting and analytics initiatives will likely fail over time.

Georgia Mariani

Georgia Mariani is the SAS Global Product Marketing Manager for the Education Industry. Mariani works with customers to share best practices, successes and recommendations that enable education institutions to get the most productive insights from their data.


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