In one of my former professional lives, I spent nearly a decade as a leadership coach. Much of my time was devoted to helping clients make decisions both big and small. Over the course of that career, I came to the conclusion that the best decisions take into account three things: values, gut intuition, and data.
Lately, the focus in higher education has been centered on data—in particular, big data with predictive value. Moneyball and Freakonomics have brought data into popular consciousness, stoking our country’s collective cultural fascination with developing rational, predictable pathways to certain success and discerning improbable but calculable success against the odds.
Big Data + Education
Recent media coverage shows that like any tool, predictive analytics can be put to different uses—some more desirable than others. The Chronicle of Higher Education has stated that data analysis programs that help retain students are gaining traction. EDUCAUSE, which manages NGLC, has developed and curated a host of resources in its online library dedicated to Big Data in higher education.
Several NGLC grantees from the Breakthrough Models Incubator 2013 are also on the cutting edge here, using predictive analytics to support student success and addressing concerns raised by these articles.
William Rainey Harper College, one of seven institutions invited to participate in the Breakthrough Models Incubator 2013, is launching a second iteration of its Project Discover pilot this fall. The project integrates and amplifies the impact of big data mining across the institution.
Customized Student Services
Drawing on student biographical and performance data, Harper College’s counselors are able to efficiently deliver customized service to students, accessing in one keystroke a portrait of information about each student that previously would have taken them hours to assemble.
In ‘Data-Driven Madness’—John Warner’s recent post for Inside Higher Ed—the author asserts that efficiency is not an educational value. It may not be one of his top ten, but I would claim just the opposite. Efficiency has always been an educational value, driving policy around everything from teacher-child ratios to federal financial aid.
With institutions facing massive budget cuts, performance-based funding mandates and caps on tuition increases, ignoring the need for efficiency is not a sustainable strategy. Accessing the power of high-tech allows Harper College to scale the high-touch elements of their institution in keeping with the institution’s values.
Project Discover is also authentically personalized. It uses student data that is unique to each student’s interests, not just their demographics. Through the analytics-driven portal, each credential-seeking student completes assessments that support the creation of the personalized path to completion. Yes, the predictive data makes recommendations, but it leaves plenty of room for student decisions. No one is forced into or out of a major.
No doubt performance-based funding will tempt some institutions to use the blunt end of the instrument. Through its integrated data-driven experience, Harper College aligns data with institutional values, leaving room for that gut intuition that predicts success against the odds. In doing so, they stand as a model in excellent decision-making not only for their own students, but for higher education leaders as well.