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Counterterror Software To Become Counter-Dropout Tool

Up until now ISS has built a name for itself among military customers. Can the same technology developed by this defense contractor to identify potential risk on the battlefield help you retain your students too?

Unless you're in the business of defense, you may never have heard of ISS. Intelligent Software Solutions' usual customers for data analysis solutions include the Department of Defense, the National Intelligence Community Agencies, NATO, the United States Coast Guard and other military organizations here in the U.S. and abroad. Its areas of expertise include coming up with systems for command and control, special ops, intelligence, counter-terrorism, homeland security and other disciplines straight from the Spy vs. Spy playbook.

Now it's pondering its prospects for a bright future in higher education. The idea: to apply its complex and sophisticated data integration, data analysis and data visualization environment in helping colleges and universities retain students.

The company, based in Colorado, already works with institutions such as Auburn University in a small business and university technology transition partnership program, bringing together academic researchers with funding opportunities by the Department of Defense.

But this latest endeavor is a different area altogether. As ISS Chief Scientist Kent Bimsonexplained, "If you talked with the provost's office in any university, student retention and finding ways to make the student experience much better so they retain students would be one of their top priorities. And this seems to be a recurring theme."

Bimson, who has ties with the University of New Mexico (UNM) as a research faculty member, cited that school as an example. "When we lose a student at UNM, it costs them at least $10,000 a year if the student doesn't come back to the school for whatever reason. It's a big cost item."

At that rate, he pointed out, it doesn't take the retention of many students "to pay the cost of technology that can help improve the student experience and therefore improve their probability of returning to school."

He added a caveat that the company has no contracts yet; it's looking at student retention purely as a "possible business area."

Developing a "Common Operating Picture"
Institutions have a lot of people working on retention-related research, Bimson noted. At UNM, for example, the business school has done "a lot of analysis on high school attendance rates." The puzzle is to figure out where high school attendance is a real problem and whether that's predictive of students having problems later on in their academic careers staying in the university as well.

Those are the same kinds of predictive questions being asked of ISS' software, just in a different context, insisted Bimson.

"We build large-scale data integration platforms," he said. "A lot of our systems have been used throughout Afghanistan, Africa, Iraq and many other countries to gather and integrate data from a lot of different sources."

Sometimes that data is structured, such as database data "like a person's school records"; other times, it's unstructured and might come in the form of textual reports, blog entries and social media commentary.

"ISS is very good at building technologies to support large-scale data integration and provisioning of that data to stakeholders that need it. And we're very good at the analytics that go along with storing and integrating that data," he added.

A key technology developed by ISS is WebTAS, which pulls together information and offers pattern recognition and visualizations from disparate data sources, such as user communities and military or intelligence missions. For example, to understand a bombing event, said Bimson, the agencies involved would compile "reports on all different sorts of formats, from all sorts of organizations, and you're going to have to integrate that information from those sources. You're going to get structured data on the individuals involved, the kind of [improvised explosive devices] used, the components of the IEDs that have been discovered in forensic analysis." All of that information would have to be gathered in one place to provide analysts with a single integrated view of the situation. "Sometimes we call that a common operating picture," he explained.

It's not such a leap, Bimson suggested, to apply a tool such as WebTAS to the mass of data compiled about students through student information systems, learning management systems and other sources in an institution during their undergraduate and graduate years. "The data gets very large, very quickly and provides us with both structured information and unstructured information that can help us analyze what's going on with the students, what the metrics are that a student may be doing well or not doing well, and the indicators for whether they will actually drop out or stay in school."

To achieve a comparable outcome, UNM is currently building a data warehouse intended to integrate heterogeneous information sources that have existed at the university for a long time. "The reason they're doing that is because they can't find anything on the market that will do the job in an affordable way. Bimson said he believes ISS is well positioned to provide "a more flexible solution" that's also more cost effective than the ones currently offered to institutions from mainstay data companies such as Oracle, IBM or SAP.

A Field Ripe for Growing
Although plenty of products from education technology companies already offer the promise of analytics that address some aspect of student retention, few have the kind of reach promised by WebTAS. As an example, Bimson referred to student surveys that ask open-ended questions. "If you get [thousands] of surveys, trying to extract the knowledge from those comments in any kind of automated way so that people don't have to manually go through and try to understand each individual comment is a very tough problem. That's where the technology we're building at ISS can really help."

He likened the potential in education for the use of WebTAS to "voluntary corn out in your back field." After seeing five or six voluntary stalks pop up, "You go, maybe this field is pretty good for growing corn."

Currently, the company is re-engineering WebTAS to work as a cloud solution. The value of that, Bimson explained, is that it'll be easier to integrate "large amounts of data" from various sources without necessarily having to sort out direct links to the storage systems where that data is stored. "A lot of problems go away through the cloud."

Of course, he noted, other problems — namely security concerns — surface with cloud usage. And that may be where a company like ISS has a definite advantage. When your primary clients require Department of Defense-level security, you're used to implementing encryption and other forms of lockdown to prevent unauthorized people from accessing the data under management.

"Are we going to be the only answer?" he offered. "We know we're not going to be. But the issue is, there doesn't seem to be a universal technology that solves this problem or helps people understand where the problems are so we can help put programs in place to help solve them."

Bimson recalled a student he knew during a teaching stint at Sacramento State University in California — a "brilliant statistics student" who committed suicide "because he didn't think he was performing at the level he thought he should." The kind of predictive analytics produced by ISS that currently targets problems such as how to deny "an enemy" the opportunity to conduct indirect fire on the field of battle may just one day be able to alert a school that it has a troubled "kid" who needs psychological and social help. With that kind of laser focus in a stream of moving data, he observed, "Who knows what we could have done"

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