In the earliest days of the pandemic reaching the United States, COVID-19 forced more than 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities into full-time remote learning, significantly altering the fabric of higher education that has stood for hundreds of years and stressing a sector already under heavy pressure.
Even pre-pandemic, competition among U.S institutions was fierce. Student enrollment at universities was at a record low, down to 21.9 million enrolled students in 2019 from 25.2 million in 2011. Exactly to what extent these factors will impact financial, admissions and academic futures of universities is yet to be
determined; without a doubt, these challenges will bring change. The good news: change doesn’t have to be bad and in this case, also presents an opportunity.
Bringing data to light
Perhaps the most noticeable shift is the rapid transition away from in-person, on-campus classes to digital learning. This expansion of online courses is giving institutions unprecedented access to data. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to identify trends and patterns within this data can lead to better protection from cyber threats, more informed decision-making, improved student recruitment and retention, and an increase in bottom-line revenue.
Recent research developed in conjunction by ESG and Splunk reveals that 51% of higher ed institutions are already using data to provide stronger protection from cyber threats and 61% are realizing improved business outcomes directly attributable to operationalizing data.
However, the failure to leverage automation for data visibility across the sector has led to significant amounts of dark data —the untapped, invisible data flowing through the environment—being left on the cutting room floor and leaving institutions unable to utilize it fully. In higher education this often exists because university IT departments remain siloed from the rest of campus where other precious, valuable data resides.
Institutions must evolve from a culture where data is treated solely as an element of the IT department to one that affects, and shapes, the entire organization. The rapid shift to remote learning brought on by COVID-19 presents an opportunity to do just that. For the first time in a long time, almost every higher education institution has a clean slate to break this cycle and bring data to everything.
Remote learning: A data gold mine
In only a few months, higher education organizations have rocketed into a new age of data, making sweeping digitization efforts that may have previously taken upwards of a year.
Though online classes have grown in volume and popularity in recent years, they have never been tried on this scale or under these timeframes. After months of full-time distance learning, a clear end is still not in sight. The California State Higher Ed system recently announced no on-campus classes for the upcoming fall semester, a decision many others have made since. To support and deliver exclusively remote learning, colleges are collecting data on everything from network access and student performance to the reliability of the online platforms enabling it. They are not only examining distance-learning platform performance metrics such as potential bottlenecks on the network, popular log-in times and overall student success, but also applying predictive analytics to improve the online learning experience.
All university departments, not only IT, must collaborate more closely than ever to investigate, monitor and analyze these new and complex data sets to gain a holistic view into their operations and digital learning effectiveness. But that’s not all—they must leverage that data to take action, to enable all stakeholders to make confident, informed decisions across the institution. Failing to do so will only add to the sector’s dark data problem, hampering crucial decision-making and significantly limiting organizations’ success.
A data-driven campus
Most colleges and universities have generally collected data for a historical, look-back view of past trends and insights. Recently, however, officials at leading institutions have started leveraging real-time data to observe patterns and make informed, data-driven decisions across campus.
The University of North Carolina School of Education, for example, is leading in this area with a National Science Foundation-funded pilot that utilizes data from hundreds of volunteer Biology 101 students. Observing their use of campus resources and their resulting course performance, the university’s Quantitative Psychology teams are building algorithms that predict student achievement and can help struggling undergraduates before it’s too late.
This innovative active-learning program provides a glimpse into what college campuses could look like when institutions apply data across departments. It’s becoming increasingly clear that whether for budgeting, planning, research or creating new programs for students, data should be the driving force behind decision-making at all levels. In a 2019 Dark Data survey, 76% of the 1,365 participating global business managers and IT leaders agreed that “the organization with the most data is going to win.”
The current COVID-19 crisis has shaken the foundation of higher education. However, it also presents an opportunity to invest in new data-driven approaches that can benefit all universities and colleges. The ones that adapt and optimally leverage new and existing data will stand a much better chance at weathering this storm and rebounding even stronger than before.
Juliana Vida has been the Chief Technical Advisor – Public Sector at Splunk, a data platform provider, since 2019. She brings over 30 years of experience as an accomplished leader and IT professional. Prior to Splunk, Juliana was a vice president in Gartner Executive Programs, advising and coaching federal government Chief Information Officers (CIO) and IT senior leaders. She served honorably for 24 years as a US Naval Officer. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Juliana is a Special Advisor to the Washington Cyber Roundtable, and a member and mentor in Women in Technology and Women in Defense.