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Analytics: Changing the Conversation

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Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

This is the third in a three-article EDUCAUSE Review series exploring analytics.

We live in an information culture. We are accustomed to having information instantly available and accessible, along with feedback and recommendations. We want to know what people think and like (or dislike). We want to know how we compare with "others like me." Just as analytics powers Amazon.com, Netflix, TheRestaurantFinder.com, and Yelp, it can support tools for student empowerment.

Empowerment hinges on having access to information, which can help students make better choices to navigate college more successfully. As we have explored student empowerment in higher education, several guidelines have emerged from what we are learning.

"Use data to change the conversation."

Students, faculty, staff, and the public—we all make assumptions easily. Having data at hand can change the conversation by informing questions and providing concrete answers. In a highly complicated environment, assumptions and anecdote aren't enough. Higher education has a responsibility to provide guidance to help students make good decisions based on data. But using data well requires the development of "data literacy." We must help students understand the data and what it means to them.

For example, too many course choices can be confusing for students, and making poor course selections could delay graduation. Degree Compass, a course-recommendation system developed at Austin Peay State University, uses predictive analytics to help students find the courses that best fit their degree program, overlaid with a model predicting the students' success in the course. The system guides students and advisors in deciding on a pathway to graduation. Recommended course lists, the role each course plays in a degree program, and class availability information are readily available to students.

"Move from the past to the predictive."

Much of our data use has revolved around reporting on what happened—in the past. Data use is moving to the predictive—to what is likely to happen. Today's online systems collect more data and more detailed information about how students learn, capturing inputs, problem-solving sequences, number of attempts, and time spent on task. Detailed learning activity can be used to predict how a student will perform in a future context, providing useful feedback to the student, the instructor, and the institution. The data is key to adaptive systems, diagnostics, and alerts that can make students aware of risks and can help students avoid problems. These systems are designed not to replace personal interaction but to make education more personal through timely alerts that assist individual students.

Purdue University and Rio Salado College are among the pioneers of predictive analytics,, which allows institutions to make predictions and anticipate problems. Based on personalized data and predictive algorithms, system alerts trigger individualized interventions that can help students, advisors, and/or faculty tap resources to avert failure.

"Empower choice, don't restrict it."

For almost any decision, there are more options than we may realize—sometimes so many that decision-making can become paralyzed. As noted above, choice—without good information and guidance—can be the enemy of student success. Analytic systems allow us to personalize recommendations that help students make better-informed choices. With good information, students might ask: "What should I do differently?" And they might use data to find alternative paths to their goal.

Knowing whether they are "on track" makes a difference to students. The eAdvisor system at Arizona State University and STAR at the University of Hawaii assist students in selecting appropriate courses and tracking progress toward their major. eAdvisor was designed to take the guesswork out of how to earn a degree so that students would stay on track to graduate. For example, it helps students choose a major based on their interests and career goals, and it then highlights appropriate course sequences. Because much of the degree requirements tracking is handled online, in-person advising services can be expanded, allowing more time to explore degree and career choices and address individual needs.

"Use data for gateways, not just gatekeeping."

We have been conditioned to think of data as summative—as an end point. A report, a grade, or a test either opens a door or closes it. Thanks to analytics, data can point learners to personalized learning pathways tailored to their needs, aspirations, abilities, and timelines. Although data has historically flowed in only one direction, serving to validate compliance or trigger funding, data is actually most useful to inform thinking, questioning, planning, and next steps.

Rapid feedback enables accelerated learning for students. Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative uses feedback loops based on analytics. Students receive feedback in corrections, suggestions, and cues tailored to their performance. Student learning is accelerated, along with equal or better retention and performance compared with traditional instruction. Instructors receive feedback about students' knowledge, how students are using course materials, and students' use patterns. Instructors have better information on which to base course refinements and inform theories of learning.


Few transactions are as complicated as college. By informing questions and providing concrete answers, analytics can empower students to make good choices. Analytics can thus change the conversation, both for students and for institutions.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 48, no. 1 (January/February 2013)

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,400 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Dr. Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the Associate Dean of Academic Programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Dr. Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Dr. Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Game Changers.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Dr. Oblinger serves on a variety of boards including the American Council on Education (ACE), and DuraSpace. Previous board and advisory service includes the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project, and the NSF Committee on Cyberinfrastructure. She currently serves as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Dr. Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of eight books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, Learning Spaces, and Game Changers. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds three honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (bachelor's, master's, and PhD) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


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Thank you for this incredibly insightful article. Our application follows the exact principles that you outline and, although it is very good at what it does and provides the analytics that research has shown to be useful, I find that academics and management sometimes have issues with understanding the potential of data intelligence. This is in stark contrast with students who are much quicker and enthusiastic to pick up on our new tools and are embracing it quickly.  

Basing a decision about student performance on predictive analysis is not easy for academics as this seems to be a completely different way of dealing both with students as well as data. Can you perhaps explain how this thought shift is happening (if it is happening at all) and whether you see a mindset change coming about throughout the country or in pockets like with Purdue university and Rio Salado College?

Posted by: Charlotte_beestar on January 30, 2013


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