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Make My Data

The benefits of Big Data are prompting changes in everything from degree programs to how universities are structured and governed.

This story appeared in the February 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

While it sounds embarrassingly geeky to say it, higher education is undergoing some of the same changes that Star Trek experienced at the start of its The Next Generation series. Gone is the brainy Spock who solved problems with the power of his mind and strength of character. In his place is the waxy-skinned android Data--all calculation, information, and analysis. It is to him that Capt. Picard increasingly turns in crises. Data is what governs in this new world.

It's a similar story on campus, although we have only just embarked on this particular odyssey. But looking into the future, data--how we collect it, store it, and analyze it--is going to have profound repercussions on the way higher education is managed.

In this issue alone, CT is running three stories that are anchored in Big Data. It was not a conscious decision on our part to create a data-themed issue. Instead, we find that data is coming up naturally in conversations across a wide spectrum of issues in higher education.

"7 Secrets of Lasting Relationships!" for example, examines how CRM systems are now geared to gather the minutiae of schools' interactions with their constituents, fueling everything from recruitment efforts to retention and alumni fundraising. And just as Star Trek's Data slowly evolves toward greater humanness, these school communications are becoming increasingly personalized as more data comes online.

And when we decided to explore the issue of shadow IT in "Going Behind IT's Back," our expectation was that the story would focus on the friction between central IT and rogue faculty/students emboldened by what they can achieve on their own. It turns out that IT departments are taking a laissez-faire attitude toward a host of shadow applications, but one arena is increasingly non-negotiable: data management. As the true value of data becomes clear, we are seeing demands for more--not less--centralization of data sets. As Timothy Chester, vice president for IT at the University of Georgia, says: "In a world that's driven by data and analytics, we need authoritative information, and authoritative information is driven by standardization."

Gathering data and hashing out governance for that data are step one and two. Step three is making sense of it all, and for that we are woefully unprepared. As writer John K. Waters learns in the third and final installment of his Big Data series, "Training Next-Gen Data Superheroes," only a half percent of the world's data is being analyzed today. To tackle the behemoth task ahead, a host of US schools are starting data sciences programs to train a new generation of Datas (preferably human) capable of sifting through the sea of information in search of trends and truths.

It's a growth industry, to put it mildly. As Terence Parr, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, says in the article, "There are so few people in this field right now that some careers are going to launch like rockets." Indeed, it sounds as if we need our very own Starfleet Academy.

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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