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Doing Better with Less


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Diana G. Oblinger (doblinger@educause.edu) is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

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The challenges facing higher education in the United States today are unprecedented. The list is long, with no relief in sight:

  • The financial model of higher education appears to be unsustainable. State support is declining. Federal stimulus dollars will soon be gone. Income from endowments, used for scholarships or operating funds, is often insufficient to meet needs. Families’ ability to pay tuition has been undercut because of job cuts and the decline in home equity.
  • The educational needs and aspirations of too many students go unmet. Although the U.S. goal for postsecondary graduates is 60 percent, the current graduation rate in the United States is 30 percent. Improving the success rate of students who have inadequate college preparation or multiple risk factors requires resources and support beyond what most colleges and universities currently have, or are likely to have, available.
  • Although education and innovation drive jobs and the economy, investing in research, researchers, and the necessary infrastructure in hopes of a long-term payoff is increasingly difficult.

Something has to change. How do we do better with less? In this issue of EDUCAUSE Review, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) President Freeman Hrabowski III contends that higher education “must begin by transforming its own culture, which is reflected in the questions we ask (and those we don’t), the achievements we measure and highlight (and those we ignore), and the initiatives we support (or don’t support).” Faced with unprecedented challenges, what can our community do to shape a better future? One answer appears to involve the more effective use of data.

In their article “Penetrating the Fog: Analytics in Learning and Education,” Phil Long and George Siemens state: “The most dramatic factor shaping the future of higher education is something that we can’t actually touch or see: big data and analytics.” Correspondingly, Hrabowski, Jack Suess, and John Fritz argue that we should approach institutional transformation with the same scholarly rigor we expect of researchers: by collecting data, using modeling and statistical analysis, and assessing results. Information technology can help change institutional culture and achieve campus priorities by supporting evidence-based decision-making and management.

Unfortunately, our culture of evidence may not be as strong as one might assume. In “Seeking Evidence of Impact,” Malcolm B. Brown and Veronica Diaz explore the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) community’s understanding of “evidence” and “impact.” Evidence of impact, such as evidence that information technology has a positive impact on student learning, is desirable. In a recent ELI survey, 71 percent of respondents agreed that their campus is receptive to reports of evaluation projects. However, only 15 percent gather evidence systematically, and only 9 percent do so at an institutional level. As Charles Dziuban observes: “In the absence of data, anecdote can become the primary basis for decision-making. Rarely does that work out very well. . . . Uncollected data cannot be analyzed.”

Long and Siemens note: “The move toward using data and evidence to make decisions is transforming other fields.” Even though higher education “gathers an astonishing array of data about its `customers,’” we haven’t focused sufficiently on using these learner-produced data trails to improve learning. They advocate for analytics as “a new model for college and university leaders to improve teaching, learning, organizational efficiency, and decision-making and, as a consequence, serve as a foundation for systemic change.” Analytics can have value in higher education across administration, research, teaching and learning, and support services. Long and Siemens cite multiple examples:

  • Improve administrative decision-making and organizational resource allocation
  • Increase organizational productivity and effectiveness by providing up-to-date information and allowing rapid response to challenges
  • Identify at-risk learners and provide intervention to assist learners
  • Provide learners with insight into their own learning habits and give recommendations for improvement
  • Create, through transparent data and analysis, a shared understanding of the institution’s successes and challenges
  • Help leaders transition to holistic decision-making through analyses of what-if scenarios and experimentation

With the increasing pressures for accountability, efficiency, and continuous improvement in higher education, our need for data and analytics—and evidence of impact—will continue to grow. We need a better understanding of the applications, tools, and skills required. Long and Siemens emphasize: “Analytics in education must be transformative, altering existing teaching, learning, and assessment processes, academic work, and administration.” As J. D. Walker observes: “Good research costs money, and budgets are tight.” But these costs are miniscule compared with the costs of making unwise investments, failing to help students succeed, and missing opportunities for innovation and economic growth.

IT units have a growing imperative to advance institutional data, analytics, and decision-making. To do better with less, we should heed Hrabowski’s advice. We must begin by transforming our own culture.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 5 (September/October 2011)

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 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, 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, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, 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 Learning Spaces.

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.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations 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.

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 seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. 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 two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


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