Higher education is awash in data from a multitude of systems. The new challenge for institutions is bringing that data together to inform decisions, ensure institutional effectiveness, and improve student outcomes. We brought together three higher education professionals at the recent Educause conference to discuss this challenge. Panelists took questions on the current state of data at their institutions. They identified common challenges, and shared 4 solutions that met with success on their campuses.
While point solutions have contributed to data silos, panelists agreed that data sharing is as much about trust as it is about software. “When you are the individual in a department or college who is responsible for writing these reports, you get to put forward what you want the world to see,” said Whitten Smart, special assistant to the vice president for information technology at Texas State University.
Caroline Hilk, assistant provost for student success and faculty development at Hamline University, concurred. “We have key people housed within the schools who know that data, they know how to manage it, they know how to run the reports, and there is a sense of mistrust when that data is going to be managed in another entity,” she said.
To foster trust:
- Ensure that necessary data remains available and usable for the “data owners” who manage it and report on it
- Involve data owners in aligning data use across the institution
A key blocker to data sharing is data owners not understanding what the data will be used for. “When you have data at the college level, you wonder, what are they really doing with that data? What’s going to happen? How is it going to be interpreted?” said Beena George, chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
“It goes back to the data ownership question: ‘My college owns this, I use it for accreditation, I do with it as I see fit.’ They may not see that the university has a purpose for that data as well,” Smart said. “When you tell people exactly what you’re going to be using these data for, they don’t fear it as much.”
- When asking data owners to provide data, share how it will be used
- Share how data provided has informed decision making
Build cooperation on sharing and normalizing data through collaboration. “Sometimes it’s almost seen as a one-way street — ‘give us all your data.’ We never ask the givers of the data, ‘what do you need to see? What do the staff in your front office need to see?’” George noted. “Once we started asking them what they needed, they started talking more about their reporting needs. It made a huge difference in the way they saw our requests for data.”
Focus on easing or enhancing the work of data owners, including faculty. “How this is going to make faculty more effective in what they’re doing, or how it’s going to make their work more efficient?” Hilk asked. Hamline asked faculty to put their CVs in a faculty activity reporting system, with the promise that “they’re not going to be asked for it again 15 different times.”
“If I provide them information on the learning outcomes assessment they did, and then they can get together with their department and have a meaningful conversation about how students are doing on that learning outcome, I’m able to enrich the conversation by making them a more effective educator and more efficient in their administrative responsibilities,” she noted.
- Provide reporting data owners need from the data you ask for
- Find ways to improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of those who provide data
“We have so many systems, and there’s such an abundance of data right now that we have to think about the stories that we want to tell,” Hilk said. “Rather than just collecting data for data’s sake, which used to be exciting to us, we’re trying to be very intentional about what sorts of data we collect.”
Panelists agreed that it’s helpful to keep the conversation focused on the questions you need to answer. “If we start thinking of the data we need, then thinking about systems, often the conversation starts being about the system — what technology do we need rather than what data do we need,” George noted.
To be intentional:
- Consider the answers that data can provide at every level of the institution
- Identify the data you already capture that could help to answer these questions you’ve identified
- Discuss software only after you know what questions you need to answer, and what data you already capture on campus
The boom in campus data brought with it the promise of greater insight and improved outcomes. These institutions are on the path to make good on that promise, leveraging campus data to inform decisions and increase effectiveness.