Universities use data collection and management systems to take a holistic approach to data-driven insights.

Apr 26 2019

Data Dashboards and Insights Help Students Optimize Their Performance

Universities use next-generation tools to centralize their data management.

Like many technology ­professionals in higher ­education, Nitin Madhok has often wondered if there’s an efficient way to turn the data his institution collects into a resource to benefit students.

“With all the tools and technologies we have on campus now, we have a huge pile of data growing every minute,” says Madhok, director of business intelligence and advanced data analytics at Clemson University. “The problem is figuring out how to mine that data for insights we can use to improve the student experience.”

The good news, Madhok says, is that a few months ago, he and a group of colleagues settled on what they believe is a promising solution. They’re integrating their Canvas learning ­management system with Splunk, a software platform offering real-time data processing and analytics.

“We’re still in the development phase, but we’re hoping to achieve a variety of things,” says Matthew Briggs, the university’s associate director for learning technologies.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities are using hyperconverged data centers to streamline IT.

IT Teams Use Dashboards to Consolidate Student Data

Clemson plans, for example, to analyze student performance, class activities, instructor feedback and other variables to see if certain characteristics tend to define the best courses. 

Splunk should also yield data on the assignments and quizzes students view, the links they access and the resources they download in the LMS. By combining that data with grade information, Splunk can yield insight into the steps individuals can take to improve their chances of success.

If you report you’re more successful studying on weeks when you also said you worked out three times, you can see that very clearly on the app’s dashboard.”

Bethany Croton Educational Technologist, Purdue University

Finally, Madhok says, by tracking the days and times when students are most active on Canvas, the IT team hopes to refine systems management.

“Across the university, our goals are the same: to use data and analytics to promote best practices and make smart decisions,” says Madhok. “If that means planning maintenance windows so we’re not disrupting students while they’re studying, that’s something that we can try to accomplish.”

Survey: Vast Majority of Institutions Have Data Analytics Programs

Clemson is one of a growing number of colleges and universities leveraging new technologies to make sense of student data. 

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the Association for Institutional Research and EDUCAUSE, 89 percent of respondents from institutions of all sizes say they’re investing in data analytics projects to boost student success.

The survey included feedback from nearly 1,000 professionals from public and private nonprofit institutions offering two- to four-year academic programs. 

Among the 398 colleges with data analytics studies already in progress, 96 percent of respondents said that improving student outcomes was one of the goals of their initiative, and 71 percent said they were seeking efficiencies in program and service delivery.

At Clemson, Nitin Madhok paired Splunk and Canvas to drive both student success and IT efficiency. Photography by: Ian Curcio.

Most of these institutions surveyed are pulling data from student information systems housing admissions, financial aid and academic course data, for example. Relatively few have, like Clemson, turned to the data in their LMS.

“One of the biggest things we found is that nearly every institution, if they’re not using student data already, they’re at least thinking about ways to do so very soon,” says Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at NASPA. “Among those that are using this data, they’re becoming more and more sophisticated in how they go about it.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities are using data analytics to improve student, faculty and staff experiences.

Custom-Built Apps Give College Students Holistic Insights

Purdue University has made data central to its student success efforts. Over the past several years, says Bethany Croton, an educational technologist for teaching and learning technologies on the university’s Innovative Learning team, Purdue has developed several data analytics applications designed for use by students and faculty alike.

One of those tools, a web-based app known as Forecast, employs an analytics and predictive-modeling platform Purdue created in consultation with Dell EMC

The app provides a “nudge” to undergraduates to adopt positive behaviors that correlate with success metrics, such as higher GPAs and on-time graduation.


The percentage of higher education respondents who said their institutions must invest in student analytics to stay competitive

Source: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the Association for Institutional Research and EDUCAUSE, “Institutions’ Use of Data and Analytics for Student Success,” April 2018

“It looks at all kinds of data,” Croton says, from student attendance and LMS assignment views to their posting activity on course discussion boards. “They can see all of that information easily on graphs in the app, and then they can decide what they want to do with it — to either take some kind of action or not.”

The more data that colleges collect, of course, the more support they need in terms of storage and networking. Data initiatives also shine the spotlight on privacy and the need to protect student information with robust security. 

As colleges develop more sophisticated uses of data analytics, the pioneers will help other institutions by refining best practices for governance, security and infrastructure. 


Universities Use Applications to Collect Multiple Data Points

Another Purdue app, Pattern, is also gaining popularity. The platform is “a lot like a Fitbit,” says Croton. It tracks a range of campus activities based on the preferences of users, both students and faculty. An instructor might use the app to glean high-level insights on the study habits of successful students.

“If they see they’re studying in groups at the library, maybe they’ll take that and come up with more assignments that require library research and collaboration,” says Croton.

Those students, in turn, can use the same functionality to keep interactive records of their time spent on coursework, including when, where and with whom they study. They can also enter data on habits and activities, such as how often they go to the gym each week. 

“Then, all of that data is combined with information they provide on their experience,” Croton says. “If you report you’re more successful studying on weeks when you also said you worked out three times, you can see that very clearly on the app’s dashboard.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how the University of Notre Dame approaches data governance.

Students Give Thumbs Up to Quantified Self Applications

So, what do students think about data-driven applications designed to quantify and analyze their academic lives? 

According to Kimberly Arnold, the learning analytics lead in the IT department’s academic technology division at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the feedback has generally been positive.

UW-Madison uses three applications at the moment: a suite of data analytics tools native to Canvas, a customized version of Pattern (Purdue licenses the app to other institutions through an entity called Studio by Purdue) and a homegrown app that lets instructors analyze students’ course-level behaviors.

“Almost everything we’ve heard through our surveys and focus groups has been super supportive,” Arnold says.

Students do have concerns about privacy, and UW-Madison takes those seriously, she adds. The university has made it clear to students and faculty that it will never sell or monetize anyone’s data.

“But overall, what we’ve found is this is something they really want. They’re from a generation where this technology is everywhere. Most of them just kind of expect it.” 

Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT