Leveling silos: Anthology CEO discusses creating data cohesion for higher ed, students

Jim Milton talks about his company's merger with Blackboard and the benefits of creating seamless, simple comprehensive learner records.

It’s been nearly 10 months since the massive merger brought Anthology and Blackboard together under one roof, with the goal being to enhance, personalize and simplify experiences for 150 million student leaners and administrators at institutions of higher education.

Heralded as a partnership to help streamline the siloed information among colleges and universities and students, initial reports from clients have given the two brands and the signature Learn Ultra learning management system an emphatic thumbs up.

“It was very gratifying to hear clients that were saying, I have seen an incredible difference in the last nine months in terms of the acceleration of the innovation,” says Jim Milton, CEO of Anthology, referring to a recent user conference it held for hundreds of education technology and higher ed professionals. “We’ve increased our investments significantly and as a result, we believe we’re well on our way to being the world-class LMS in the marketplace.”

Still, Milton admits that despite the fanfare of the announcement and the groundbreaking potential of this expansive ecosystem–from ease of use across student information systems to teaching, enterprise resource planning and engagement–future success will be determined by a number of factors.

“A challenge for a company like us ours to make sure that we still drive the innovation, the best-of-breed, best-of-suite types of solutions,” he says. “We have to have the best LMS on the planet, the best CRM on the planet. If we do that and we are innovating in terms of the integration points, breaking down the data silos and creating comprehensive learner records, that’s really what our challenge and opportunity is. That’s what we’re focused on.”

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So how does Anthology plan to achieve that? And what are some of the company’s feelings about higher education and its embrace of technology as institutions work to rebuild enrollments and create better student experiences and outcomes? University Business sat down with Milton to learn more:

Tell us more about the new Anthology, with Blackboard on board, and why it promises to be such a difference-maker.

We have by far the most comprehensive set of edtech solutions, which allows us to start to address some of the bigger challenges facing education and technology, in particular, breaking down data silos that exist. We’ve been talking about that in education for how many years and decades? In a way, we sort of created the problem–technology companies and higher ed companies that have hundreds of different solutions from different vendors deployed that have created this proliferation of data points. And never the twain shall meet. So we have the opportunity to improve areas like retention for students and learners once you have a single view of a learner. It’s not been done before. We’re the first to do it, and certainly in higher education.

Can you tell us more about the single-view approach and how it can be so pivotal for students and universities?

What we’re attempting to do is to be able to create a comprehensive learner record, the ability to correlate all of those transactions first and foremost with our systems, but to other third-party systems, as well. You don’t have to have our LMS, SIS or CRM, but ultimately it will be easier when it’s our solutions.

Tying together those interactions, those transactions so that I can start to build more information about [an individual]: Does he need help? Does he need intervention? How are we able to leverage how I’ve done from a GPA perspective that may exist in the SIS? How do I, in the alumni or advancement office, leverage reaching out to an alum who was in a co-curricular activity–for example in Greek life–when he was on campus 10 years ago? How do I tie that data together and deliver a better experience to the student or learner? That’s what we’re working on solving.

So much of what institutions are focused on revolves around students, creating career pathways, integrating new technology and offering stout resources. In another interview you did, you talked about “intelligent experiences.” So how do colleges recruit, retain and prepare learners for that journey?

The number of interactions that a learner or student will use in a traditional institution is in the tens of thousands, typically across disparate systems. As I engage with that institution, from the point that I’m being potentially recruited to when I graduate, I get a degree and somebody reaches out to me from the alumni office. They really don’t know who I am. What we’re trying to solve is learning more about each of those individuals to drive better outcomes (graduation, career progression, co-curricular activities, donations to the university.) We’re thinking about this holistically. We believe in education technology, where all of these disparate applications that we’ve propagated collectively into higher education have just introduced a myriad of data points. How do we connect all those dots so that we can ultimately better serve that student?

What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education in ensuring successful student outcomes?

Where do I begin. Think about the percentage of freshmen that start a four-year baccalaureate degree in the United States. On average, only 60% graduate and get a four-year degree after six years. In community colleges, it’s the low 30s after three years. That would be categorized as failure in most other industries. That to me, is still the biggest challenge facing higher education. Yes, the demographics are leading to enrollment declines now, and that gets a lot of the press. A second challenge is, I’m competing more now with other institutions, especially if I pivoted to an online modality or hybrid model, which seems to be where a lot of the pendulum is settling in. So I have to differentiate myself. I have to have more sophisticated recruiting. Driving up enrollment is certainly a big challenge for institutions, especially since they have more competition now, but I would still argue retention and driving better outcomes is still the foremost challenge.

Serving all institutions must be unique, each with their own challenges, right?

Yes and no. There’s a lot of commonality. Obviously, if you’re an Ivy League school, you probably have less of an issue on enrollment, or you have different challenges than if you’re in an open-enrollment community college. Whether you offer credential skills or graduate degrees, you’ll have some differences. But it’s really just the degree of the challenge that you have. Even if I’m recruiting, and I’m an Ivy League school, I still want to get the right student. I want to have diversity. There are other things that are going to drive me in terms of my recruitment strategy. I probably have higher retention rates, but I still want to provide those students of Harvard with the services to get them into the right area, the right career path, the options that are available to them. Community colleges have a unique set of challenges,  the services that these institutions have to provide to that student–mental health, shelter, in some cases–is beyond what they felt they had to have 5 or 10 years ago. It’s a challenging time to be a college president or cabinet member. We’re helping as best we can to improve the efficiency from an administrative perspective and drive a better experience for the learner.

When you look across the landscape of higher ed, what do you think we will see more of, or less of, in the next five years?

The proliferation of all of these solutions, I would hate to see us add more to that. Beyond the largest institutions that have very large IT departments, many simply cannot handle the integration of all of these disparate systems and can’t build that single view of that learner or student on their own. Tools and capabilities that are more holistic in nature need to emerge. We just have to be one of the first to do it. Not to say that there aren’t opportunities for innovation, but it has to be in the context of all the other systems around it so that it’s optimizing a particular department, function or workflow.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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