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Big data on campus

Clint Boulton | Oct. 18, 2016
Colleges and universities are sifting through reams of data in search of ways to bolster graduation rates.

"There is this inexorable drive to collect more data, and to view everything as a data collection opportunity," Tien says. "Big data begets big data, so will we see mission creep? Do we see that because there is this belief that the data helps retention that they see everything as opportunity to get more data?"

Yet those who oversee the analytics initiatives at Purdue, Marist and NC State insist that they're laser-focused on improving student outcomes.

At Purdue, Forecast constitutes the second phase of the school's learning analytics journey. CIO Gerry McCartney says an earlier version known as Signals, which was launched in 2009, depended heavily on the input of faculty members, who set up the scoring model and warned students when they were at risk. Signals provided a template for Forecast, and for the initiatives at Marist and other schools.

With analytics efforts growing more sophisticated, McCartney says, "we know a lot more about students, and we can produce a much richer set of guides."

Cautious approach

Because it's possible to learn so much about students, Purdue is exercising caution with Forecast. Participation is voluntary and students must log in to access the tool, says Drake.

Over the course of the year, Purdue will email students a heads up when it launches new software modules.

Depending on how the tool fares, Purdue may begin pushing alerts to students to warn them when they are in danger of falling off. It will also develop a mobile version of Forecast, which students will be able to download to their smartphones.

However promising such tools seem to be, the science of learning analytics remains imperfect. Academic success hinges on several factors, from student aptitude and interest in a particular course to socioeconomic and cultural situations. Higher education is still figuring out the right formula.

One thing Marist's Thirsk says he's sure of is that schools that don't embrace some form of analytics will fall behind the curve. "Schools that aren't doing this kind of work in some form are not providing great value," Thirsk says. "If you don't know what's going on course by course, then how can you say you have a great degree program?"


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