Making the Most of Data on the Road Ahead in Education: A Capital Conversation

Mark Milliron Catalytic Conversations Civitas Learning Space

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Washington DC Panorama (photo credit: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons. Washington, D.C. skyline seen from the National Cathedral.) I’ve made the case recently that we are entering a golden age of learning in higher education; but as referenced in my recent article for EDUCAUSE Review, to make the most of the opportunities before us we must engage on purpose. In no area is this purposeful engagement more important than in our work in making the most of data. With the flood of data flowing via more digital apps, communication tools, and next-gen curricula, we need new conversations about how we use data for more than just supporting transactional systems (e.g., ERP, LMS, CRM), or for regulatory responses to our states, federal government, or accreditors. Indeed, these new and deeper data footprints can be put together to tell important stories about how our students travel to and through our schools, colleges, and universities; how they learn or why they struggle; how they cross the stage or why they leave before the ceremony. The stories are there, if we’re willing to do the work of listening well. Insights from these stories can help guide initiatives, interventions, and innovations aimed at helping more student succeed. Moreover, these these insights can be brought to the front lines to support teachers, learners, and advisors in new and compelling ways. To make the most of data in these ways, however, we have to be willing to explore how we optimize our technical systems and governance strategies for these new purposes. It will mean exploring the power of data science and the discipline of design thinking. We’ll also have to be willing to ask a lot of questions about infrastructures and operations. Who has access to data, and how do they use it? How do we keep our information out of “data jail”—where others charge us for the release of our own students’ data being housed in the cloud or in proprietary systems? How do we thoughtfully focus policy and practice on using data for improving learning and student success, so that creepy edu-voyeurism or angry political agendas don’t slow important progress that can help first-generation, striving students? These and other important questions have to be wrestled with by thoughtful leaders and learners if we’re going to make the most of this moment. We were fortunate to host a lively conversation around these topics last week, as we convened the first of what will be a series of “Making the Most of Data” symposiums at 1776 in Washington DC. It was encouraging to see the mix of higher education, technology, association, non-profit, and initiative leaders come together for this important and emerging conversation. In the dialogue, there was a clear understanding that we’re experiencing an important moment where the use of data is changing. Most agreed that there was a lot to learn from the mistakes of the past, as well as key lessons from other sectors—healthcare and athletics in particular. Indeed, there was a lively discussion about the book Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients and how it showed the importance of using data to both confirm and confront “common wisdom.” “What’s our epic measure in education?” one participant asked. Another conversation centered on the idea that as we move from less of a focus on accountability analytics (e.g., reporting) and more on action analytics (e.g., directional data in compelling visualizations and apps that help guide decisions in the moment), we need to leverage both design thinking and a better understanding of heuristics, especially as we engage students, faculty, and advisors on the front-lines of learning. Others argued that we’ll need to change how we bring student success initiative leaders together with IT and IR infrastructure leaders, and make those conversations and actions meaningful and inclusive. And of the utmost importance, we have to think about how we truly make the most of data to help all students … not only at-risk students. We can move beyond simplistic “demography is destiny” data perspectives, and focus much more on how students of all kinds can make the most of their college and university experiences. As said, we plan to hold a number of these conversations over the coming months; and hope to put together a conversation guide and monograph on these issues by this summer. Stay tuned! The next venue for the dialogues will be at our Civitas Learning Summit, held in conjunction with SXSWedu. As you might know, our Wednesday sessions are open to SXSWedu attendees, so please, come join the conversation!