For-Profits That Share Data

Leaders in a sector not known for exchange of information say they will break with tradition to improve learning outcomes.

July 14, 2011

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For-profit universities, more than others, have evangelized the importance of collecting data in online learning environments and figuring out how to use it to better serve students.

At the same time, those institutions have been notorious for keeping their internal data close to the vest. After all, when your success depends on getting a competitive edge, guarding proprietary data -- and the tools that make it valuable -- comes with the territory.

That could soon change. In an uncharacteristic call for openness, a panel of for-profit leaders -- speaking on Wednesday here at the Sloan-C/MERLOT Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference -- said they are willing to share data with other institutions in order to improve student outcomes across higher education.

“I would be glad to share what we do with [the University of California] or anyone else if they’d like,” said Wallace Boston, CEO of the for-profit American Public University System (APUS). “Because I happen to think that there are so many Americans out there who still can’t afford an education that I wouldn’t view my sharing of how we do things as [aiding] another competitor, I’d view it as helping our citizens out.”

“Amen to that,” chimed in Peter Smith, senior vice president for academic strategies at Kaplan Higher Education, one of the largest degree-granting for-profit providers. Kaplan, Smith said, is interested in finding out what works and what does not when it comes to boosting student retention and success -- “and then, as we find out what works well, to share that with other people.”

Phil Ice, associate vice president for research and development at APUS, said the for-profit sector is enthusiastic about publishing internal research of its data-driven teaching methods. Ice pointed to the June issue of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, where for-profit educators from Kaplan, APUS, Walden University, and a research organization founded by the University of Phoenix wrote articles on text mining, retention, online teacher education, and other topics.

The for-profit leaders’ calls for openness across the boundaries of for-profit and non-profit higher education comes hot on the heels of federal “gainful employment” rules, which would place unique burdens on for-profit institutions as a condition of Title IV eligibility.

To the contrary, the for-profit panelists here in San Jose stressed their unity with traditional higher education. All college sectors are looking to use data tools to deliver high-quality education, they said; and all face growing expectations from students that the colleges should prove that quality is what they are in fact providing.

These assertions of solidarity were laced with criticisms of the federal rules that single out the for-profit sector. "To hold us accountable for people getting a job... holds us accountable for something we don't control," Smith said.

Data, meanwhile, is something institutions do control and for which they can reasonably be held accountable, he said -- and that goes for for-profits and non-profits alike.

'No Such Thing as Being Sort of Transparent'

Skeptics might look cockeyed at proprietary institutions purporting to be champions of openness and candor, given their corporate cultures. But some for-profit universities are putting their data where their mouths are. At a session on Tuesday, called “Data Change Everything,” Ellen Wagner, executive director of the educational technology cooperative WCET, explained how for-profit giants -- such as APUS and the University of Phoenix -- are joining with nonprofit peers -- such as Rio Salado College and the University of Illinois at Springfield -- to share (de-identified) student data.

The idea behind the project, which is called the Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework Project, is to use the larger, more adequately cross-sectional pool of institutions to produce better insights about student learning than any one university could hope to glean on its own. “I don't know what we're going to find yet," Wagner said. "But we're bookin' it, and we're going to figure out pretty darn soon.”

Wagner also pointed to WCET’s College Choices for Adults website -- which includes data volunteered by institutions such as Kaplan, APUS, Capella University, and Ashford University (along with a slew of non-profits) -- as another example of for-profits being willing to share data they are not required to disclose. “This type of data is rarely shared publicly,” reads a note on the site, “but our partner institutions chose (completely voluntarily!) to share it with you, publicly on the web.”

Private institutions still have some discretion to withhold data, of course. But being open about what you are finding out from studying student data can be a Pandora's Box, Wagner said. Institutions that choose to break the seal on their data vault might have trouble keeping the lid merely cracked.

"Once you know what those numbers tell you, people, it really is hard to ignore them," she told the assembled technologists here. "...And there is no such thing as being sort of transparent. Once you open the door, you have opened the door."

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