Mar 09 2020

Higher Ed IT Needs Data-Driven Insights Today, Not Tomorrow

Dig into your university’s data and unearth key insights that will improve IT operations and the entire campus.

While data is squarely in the domain of information technology, you often hear of it being cited in other areas of university operations such as admissions, marketing and finance.

But managing or enhancing IT by focusing on data — and, more specifically, investing in taking a data-driven approach to solving problems — can lead to some impressive payoffs for colleges and universities.

For example, staffers at the University of Illinois are now able to perform password compromise detections in just minutes (as opposed to an hour) after putting a data-driven approach into place, according to EdTech coverage from Splunk’s .conf19 event last year.

So, why should IT decision-makers in higher education get their teams on board with developing data-driven insights and putting them into action? Here are a few inspirational reasons why.

Higher Ed Can Change the World with Data-Driven Ideas

When Tim De Quilettes, IT director for Oregon State University Athletics, joined the university, he divided much of his time between “normal IT support work” and work that could “revolutionize how technology is used in intercollegiate athletics.” Before long, De Quilettes and his team were experimenting with Microsoft’s Power BI tool to analyze pitch velocity and determine when an OSU baseball pitcher was throwing at his best.

Because De Quilettes didn’t settle for the routine and mundane tasks IT is traditionally relegated to, he was able to reposition how his team was viewed by his users and non-IT campus leadership. And the spark for the innovation started by looking at what they already had: The OSU Athletics IT team historically collected a large amount of sports-related data, but it just sat there, with no active use of that data to enhance the sports program. But after De Quilettes and his team wrangled the Big Data beast with BI, partnered with non-IT counterparts to develop applicable use cases and did the hard work of prototyping, testing and analyzing these data sets, the OSU IT and athletics teams can now proudly point to specific improvements in the performance of student-athletes across baseball, swimming and gymnastics.

Data Analytics Can Save Your University

For most universities, data analytics tools or technologies may seem like unnecessary indulgences in tinkering and experimentation. But the Association for Institutional Research, EDUCAUSE and the National Association of College and University Business Officers recently joined forces to argue in a joint statement that data analytics “can save higher education.”

More to the point, the three bodies made it clear that, while funding might be hard to come by, not investing in data analytics could be even more costly for higher education.

“For every year we fail to use data effectively to improve operations or to make better financial and business decisions, we threaten the financial sustainability of our institutions,” the statement notes.

The language is dramatic, but so is the need for higher education to evolve and prove its ROI to current and prospective students. Attending a four-year college can no longer be seen as a foregone conclusion for every high school student. This is especially true as college enrollment appears to be in a decline, with enrollment numbers falling by more than 2 million this decade, according to an analysis of data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center by former university president Michael T. Nietzel for Forbes.

Colleges and universities are going to have to entice students to attend their schools, and the ways students will be convinced that the investment in tuition will pay off will rely heavily on demonstrable ROI and the unique student experiences offered by specific institutions. Data analytics is the key to understanding and explaining that value proposition.

Follow the Lead of Pioneering College Students and Faculty

It’s no secret that many universities are standing up undergraduate and graduate degree programs in data analytics as the need for business intelligence continues to grow.

These programs are unleashing the creativity of college students who aren’t restricted when it comes to creative applications of data analytics. Recently, students from Cornell University won a $2,000 grand prize at the school’s second annual Digital Agriculture Hackathon after they successfully “developed a digital interface that utilizes a scoring engine, which uses data on crop production and market prices to predict how farmers can optimize their profits,” according to The Cornell Daily Sun.

Over at the University of Wyoming, Microsoft recently awarded two professors with a $15,000 grant each through its AI for Earth program, according to the university. By tapping into the processing power of artificial intelligence, molecular biology researchers Todd Schoborg and Jay Gatlin “will examine biomedical imaging datasets to understand the molecular basis of human disease.”

IT Operations Data Analytics Opportunities

We so often seek buried treasure in far-flung and remote places. But the beauty of data analytics when it is applied to IT operations is that most of the insights worth uncovering are right under your nose.

Splunk’s higher education platform specifically tracks “student registration systems, learning management systems, networks, web servers, log files, firewall data, remote sensors, mobile and online learning applications, legacy applications, application servers and structured databases,” according to the company.

By measuring, tracking and acting against operational data from these sources, higher ed IT administrators can prevent outages, mitigate threats earlier or uncover efficiencies that can enhance performance and improve reliability.

So, whether you start small or big, the most important thing when it comes to making an impact at your university with data analytics is to start now.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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