Data – a Critical Resource for Higher Ed

Also published on LinkedIn:

About a year ago, one of my deans was arguing for a new piece of software to help with one of our accreditation processes. I realized that we should probably try to coordinate any new software purchases that were data related with other parts of campus that were using similar data, i.e., HR, admissions, development and the registrar’s office. When we all sat down around the table, it was clear that our data needs overlapped, but it wasn’t clear how we could meet those needs without dealing with legacy software that would be expensive to update, and any direction we looked was going to cost a significant amount of money. As I have discussed these issues with others in higher ed and in industry, it’s clear that data and how to manage it is a difficult but critical issue that needs to be addressed on a variety of fronts.

When I decided to take the provost position at Menlo College three years ago, I was excited at the prospect of moving back to the San Francisco Bay area, and Silicon Valley, in particular. I had a particular interest in the ed tech ecosystem that was developing and new initiatives that were starting to change the face of education. What I have learned over the last three years is that one of the most important, yet underappreciated resources for academic administrators is the data that we can gather in our programs and how important that data is to the ability of our institutions to thrive in a changing environment. I am also starting to learn the role that ed tech, and Silicon Valley more broadly, is playing in the development of tools to deal with these issues. What I am finding is that there is a need for more collaboration with the players in tech, particularly from those of us in academic administration.

It’s clear that data is important for admissions, assessment, retention and tracking alumni, but what has become more clear to me, particularly over the last year, is the need for academic administrators to have a better understanding of the way that data and software are linked. I admit that until I started dealing in more detail with accreditation issues around assessment and collecting data for program learning outcomes, I was blissfully unaware of the potential and need for collecting data within academic affairs. I knew that syllabi had to let students know what we expected them to learn, and that we should be able to document what our students have learned by the time they graduate, but in the past year I have had to get into the granular details of what it means to actually design academic programs in a way that allows data to be collected, and ultimately for that data to be used for updating courses and making changes to curriculum.

I’m grateful to organizations like who have had the foresight to bring together provosts and presidents to discuss innovation in higher ed in California. When I attended their Higher Ed Summit in Washington DC this past March, I learned a great deal about the wide range of uses of Salesforce and ways that it can be customized through apps. What surprised me was how few academic administrators were there who weren’t in IT, admissions, or development. Administrators who come from the faculty ranks rarely have expertise in data management or software, but given the need to provide our faculty with the tools they need, for assessment in particular, it’s important that we understand where data is coming from, and how it can be utilized from admissions all the way through the processing of alumni data. For example, how can we know if our students are learning what they need to know if we aren’t tracking our alumni and their job outcomes? We need to make sure we are getting feedback and then get that data to our faculty in a way that allows them to understand what is and isn’t working in the classroom.

Of course, we also need to provide more support and give more credit to faculty who are performing well and creating innovations in the classroom. I know many R1 institutions, including my former institution, the University of Texas at Austin, have provided major teaching awards and are doing more to recognize teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level. Small teaching institutions often lack resources to have the software and data management tools that would provide support for faculty, and it will be up to the innovators in ed tech and higher ed to work together to find ways to simplify and support new ways of connecting data, like workforce data, to learning outcomes, perhaps through learning managements systems like Blackboard or Canvas.

Finally, we administrators need to educate ourselves on the appropriate tools for our institutions, and I know this isn’t an easy thing in these lean times for higher ed. However, it is an important piece of the puzzle as we look to increase enrollment and retention of a more diverse student body. It will take collaboration, and I have seen many of these collaborations developing around the country, between colleges and universities, local and state governments, and the corporate sector. Foundations and the Department of Education are funding projects that support evidence based (i.e., data collection!) innovations in teaching and research that will help colleges and universities use data in ways that will fuel innovation in higher ed for the foreseeable future.