Using Small Data to Accomplish Big Things

Colleges don't need to spend a lot of money on big data projects to reap the benefits of information analytics, says a speaker at Campus Technology 2014.

small data on campus

BOSTON—Businesses worldwide are rushing to adopt big data technologies, hoping to be able to mine and analyze the mountains of information they're generating to achieve greater efficiencies, save money and make faster and better business decisions.

And big data is big business. IDC analysts expects the big data market to hit $32.4 billion by 2017 and Gartner analysts last year said that a survey showed that every vertical industry was investing or planned to invest in big data, with such spaces as media, communications, banking transportation and health care leading the way.

However, Stephen Laster, chief digital offer at McGraw-Hill education and former chief information and technology officer at Harvard Business School, believes the higher education field should be different. Universities and colleges still need to leverage the information that they're generating, with the goal being to make it easier for faculty members to teach and for students to learn. But there doesn't need to be the massive big data projects that take up a lot of time and resources and money.

IT staffs at institutions of higher education instead should be focusing on "small data," according to Laster.

"Here's my thinking about big data—I don't know what to do with it in education," he told attendees July 28 at the Campus Technology 2014 conference here. "I'd like to get us away from the term 'big data.'"

Laster described higher education in the United States as being in a precarious position. Student debt continues to climb while enrollment is falling. An increasing number of students (51 percent pursuing a two-year degree and 20 percent seeking a four-year degree) need remedial services—particularly in math—before entering college, and many of those students won't end up graduating. It takes an average of six years to obtain a four-year degree, he said.

At the same time, educators understand the value of a college degree, Laster said. It's extremely difficult to get a decent, well-paying job without at least a bachelor's degree, and a more educated populace is important to society, from creating consensus and compromise to driving innovation.

"We know that a degree is powerful," he said. "We know that a degree is life-changing. … The problem is, we're offering an inferior product. We have a lot of people coming into college and we don't have a lot of people graduating from it. And in the middle, they're spending a lot of money."

Schools need to improve the learning environments for students and work environments for faculty, and leveraging the data the institutions have can help, Laster said. However, they don't need to be part of a large and expensive big data project. If used correctly, with the right tools, programs can be put in place that will improve everything from retention and graduation rates to student engagement, remediation rates and faculty satisfaction.

Laster pointed to two examples where universities used learning tools from McGraw-Hill Education—though he noted other companies make similar products—to improve outcomes. At the University of Texas-El Paso, by 2007 educators were finding that about 23 percent of incoming students were behind at least two semesters in their math capabilities. Initially, the college tried to address the situation by lowering their placement scores, but the result was even more unprepared students.

UTEP then instituted a program called Mad Dog Math, a summer bridge course for some incoming students based on the ALEKS adaptive learning technology that McGraw-Hill inherited when it bought ALEKS Corp. in 2013. The results were that through Mad Dog Math, a higher percentage of students arrive on the college campus prepared for the math courses they would be taking and fewer needed developmental classes, Laster said.

In another case, Valencia College, in Orlando, Fla., used McGraw-Hill's LearnSmart adaptive learning program to help teach accounting and statistics, he said. Like the UTEP program, the results at Valencia included fewer students withdrawing from the course and a higher rate of students completing their assignments.

In both cases, the schools were able to use the data they had to identify where the need was, create and adopt programs to address those needs and then measure the outcomes to ensure the programs were accomplishing what was needed. Students were more engaged, were given new tools to learn and responded positively. They also were examples of how the IT staffs at universities and colleges can use their skills to improve the environments for both students and faculty, Laster said.

"It's about student engagement, but it's also about small data," he said.