Technology and the Completion Agenda

With a chorus of influential voices calling for colleges to enroll and successfully graduate more students, data analytics is center stage.
November 9, 2010

The White House, the Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Call them the Three Tenors of the completion agenda.

In one of his first speeches as president, Barack Obama emphasized the need for a higher rate of postsecondary completion. Lumina had already been investing in projects designed to get more Americans into college and out with a degree. And Gates has, in recent years, made college completion as basic to the legacy of its eponymous benefactor as, well, BASIC. (Others have since echoed the call.)

Now, the technology section is joining the band — and may be holding the instruments that could make the whole song a hit: data analytics.

“This has been building for a while,” says Donald Norris, president and founder of Strategic Initiatives, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in "transformative change" in higher ed and elsewhere, which has lately taken a strong interest in analytics. But only now, Norris says, as institutions grapple with the challenge of enrolling more students and increasing success with fewer resources, has the subject of data analytics — and the tools that technology vendors have been developing to wield those data — emerged at the forefront of conversations about technology in education.

Data analytics is shorthand for the method of warehousing, organizing, and interpreting the massive amounts of data accrued by online learning platforms and student information systems — now as elemental to higher education as classrooms and filing cabinets — in hopes of learning more about what makes students successful, then giving instructors (and the platforms themselves) the chance to nudge those students accordingly.

Much like the notion that improving college completion rates is good for the country, data analytics is not a new idea. But it has only recently come into widespread demand, some observers say.

“Trying to get those conversations going with clients five years ago sort of fell on deaf ears,” says Kenneth Chapman, director of product strategy at the learning-management provider Desire2Learn.

It was only late last winter, just about when Obama was articulating his degree-completion agenda in his speech to Congress, that interest in data analytics reached a “tipping point,” Chapman says: The company’s sales groups were beginning to hear the words thrown around by their clients. They advised Desire2Learn to move its data products “out of research and into core development.”

Data tools have “absolutely” become a crucial selling point for learning-management providers recently, says Lou Pugliese, president of Moodlerooms, which last year released a learning-management system, called Joule, that features analytical tools as part of a “wrapper” around the open-source Moodle learning platform. Blackboard, which licenses the most popular online learning platform among nonprofit institutions, has ramped up its own data tools in recent years. Pearson’s eCollege, the leading provider among for-profit colleges, owes its dominance in that market to its early commitment to analytics. SunGard Higher Education, which focuses primarily on back-office technologies, has been trumpeting its acquisition of Signals, a program developed by Purdue University that analyzes students' activity in their online courses and flags those who show early signs of being at risk for failure.

Both Desire2Learn and Moodlerooms — among others — were pitching their data-analytics applications last month at Educause. In a blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Dartmouth College instructional technologist Joshua Kim noted that the Gates Foundation, with its strategically timed announcement of $20 million in new grants for technologies that point toward completion, had oriented a lot of conversations at that conference to how technology might be used to work toward the foundation’s goals.

After all, it is hard to talk about getting more students into college without talking about online learning. And since one of the big problems so far with online learning has been getting students all the way to a degree, it is even harder to talk about improving completion without talking about data analytics.

“Online learning without embedded analytics is like a car without wheels,” says Norris, who has written many white papers on the subject. “Embedded analytics turns online learning into an engine for both scaling access and improving retention, persistence, and completion.”

But while Gates might have made degree completion a hot topic at Educause by earmarking more money for the technology piece than any foundation to date, experts — including Gates’s people — are careful not to imply that higher ed technologists just started talking about using data tools when Bill Gates, perhaps the world’s most data-oriented celebrity, started holding conferences about it. “I think it would be disingenuous for us to somehow say we invented this conversation,” says Mark Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the foundation.

So what did? The Three Tenors singing the same pitch seems to have helped, at least. So has the “general maturity and cost-effectiveness of the tools,” says Mark Jones, chief client officer at Datatel, which has been working to connect data in student information systems with the data logged by the learning platforms. “You can do more with less than you could five years ago,” Jones says. “…Vendors can deliver more out of the box."

And besides, completion has always been a value of higher education, says Diana Oblinger, president of Educause. “How can you argue,” she says, “with a high-quality education and college credentials?”

Of course, colleges might be more inclined to seek ways to better fulfill that part of the mission when doing so is considered strategically important. Enter another crucial catalyst: the economic crisis.

The economic crisis has pinched the flow of public funding to higher education and pressured some state systems to grow their enrollments to make up the difference. Invariably, that means growing their online enrollments. And since dropouts cost money and reflect poorly on institutions, those institutions need to find ways to make sure students persist, says Norris. Rising interest in data analytics is the inevitable outcome. (In fact, Norris recently co-authored a white paper titled “Linking Analytics to Lifting out of Recession.”)

“In higher education, the issue is strictly financial from the first perspective,” says Pugliese, the Moodlerooms president. “All the data and analytics are related to student persistence and have an economic impact on the institution.”

In the aftermath of the crisis, colleges that can get a firm grip on their data seem to be better positioned to get money from the government, foundations, and private donors. With resources scarce, “contingent-based giving” has become more common, says Pugliese. “People want [institutions] to prove that there’s a specific outcome to grant or donor program,” he says.

“Whether it’s a Gates- or Lumina-funded project, or Race to the Top, or various stimulus-related funding opportunities,” says Jones, of Datatel, “there is always a strong preference for supporting data to demonstrate the outcome you spent money on.”

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