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At Tech Trade Show, a Push to Give Colleges Better ‘Digital Intelligence’

example of a data dashboardOrlando, Fla. — More than 7,000 college officials gathered here this week for what is probably the largest higher-education-technology trade show in the United States, the annual meeting of Educause. Walking the trade floor, where some 270 companies mounted colorful booths, serves as a reminder of how much of college life today happens in the digital realm, and how much colleges are betting on technology to help alleviate the many challenges they face.

The biggest emerging trend this year is data analytics. Company after company here promises to sell systems that provide “data dashboards” to give professors or administrators at-a-glance reports on student activity in the name of improving retention or meeting other institutional goals. Diana Oblinger, president of Educause, described it as giving colleges “digital intelligence.”

What kinds of things have colleges learned from their newfound digital intelligence?

  • One university discovered that a scholarship program it runs to bring in high-achieving students was attracting students who were the most likely to leave—to trade up and transfer to another institution after a year or two.
  • A professor teaching an anatomy course learned that students took longer to finish the homework she assigned than expected, and that many seemed stuck on the same point.
  • A library at one state university learned that tenure-track male professors were not using the library as much as tenured male professors were.

Having insights like those doesn’t tell colleges what to do in response, of course.

But colleges will be better off knowing such facts than “bowling in the dark,” argues Mark Milliron, co-founder of Civitas Learning, one of the companies offering analytics services and digital dashboards (see above for an example).

Leaders of the scholarship program can change their recruiting practices. The professor can change her lecture. The library can reach out to young faculty members. Then they can all go back to the data and see if their changes worked.

Unlike past tech trends at colleges, the digital-intelligence craze is about measuring existing practices better rather than simply buying a new platform for teaching, research, or business. But it also means that it is much harder to properly use those technologies than to adopt the new platforms of old. Relying on data to improve teaching or services at college involves a culture shift across multiple departments, not just paying for a company’s service.

“The IT function is getting increasingly embedded and interlinked with the business of the institution—teaching, research, and administration,” says Susan Grajek, vice president for data, research, and analytics at Educause.

And to make analytics products work, colleges must work to tailor them to their own teaching practices, says Timothy Harfield, a scholar in residence at Emory University focused on helping it use learning analytics. The products he’s seen at the Educause show are too driven by people from other industries, he argues. “They know how to query a database, but they don’t know how to do course design,” he says of their creators. Indeed, many of the companies boast backgrounds in “business intelligence,” in health care and the private sector.

Mr. Milliron says that’s a fair critique and calls the colleges that have bought his product “pioneers” that are helping to shape it. “Part of my job,” he says, “is pointing this in the direction of meeting the needs of education.”

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