IT Trends | CT 2014 Coverage

The Promise of 'Small Data' on Campus

Most chief information officers in higher education spend a lot of time thinking about topics such as infrastructure, BYOD, Office365 and the next version of their learning management system. But one former CIO argues that although IT leaders still have to do all those things well, those issues should take less concentration than they did 10 years ago.

"It is time to enter into learning conversations helpfully on your campus," said Stephen Laster, former CIO of the Harvard Business School and currently chief digital officer of McGraw-Hill Education. Offering the opening keynote at the Campus Technology 2014 annual technology conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on July 28, he suggested some ways that IT leaders could collaborate with others on campus to better support the teacher-student relationship and experience.

Setting the stage for his keynote, Laster talked about why it's crucial for technology execs to get more involved in the learning environment and student success if they have not already. He argued that a higher education bubble, much like the real estate bubble of the last decade, is "bursting right in front of you." Of the approximately 4,700 institutions of higher education in the United States, many cannot raise tuition because the market won't stand it, he said. If you take deferred maintenance into account, many of them are technically bankrupt, he said.

Laster added that too many students are taking more than four years to complete their degrees or are not completing them at all. "The point is we are offering an inferior product," he said. "We have a lot of students coming in, and not enough successfully leaving. In the middle they are spending money, attracted to a promise we are not fulfilling. It is almost a crime to waste their tuition dollars, especially when it is coming from debt funding."

Although the title of his talk was "How Big Data Is Changing Everything We Know About Education," Laster switched up his audience by arguing that the standard definition of big data really doesn't match up well with education. "I do not believe higher education is about gathering terabytes of data and asking it to tell me the patterns. I love the idea of bringing data together to look for patterns and insights, but not in education," he said.

"We need measurement to have feedback and drive engagement, and we need data." But setting aside the hype around big data, Laster argued for the potential of "small data" to create a personalized learning experiences that cut down on student frustration and confusion.

Laster gave an example from the University of Texas El Paso that included the use of a knowledge map and an artificial intelligence engine to help guide students through a summer bridge course to help prepare them for college math classes. UTEP is seeing much better graduation and completion rates from this small data initiative, he said. "There were no big data marts or massive campus initiative," Laster noted. Other initiatives he described use gamification and community-building tools to boost student engagement in hybrid and online courses.

Besides serving as a tech executive at Harvard and Babson College, Laster has taught courses at the undergraduate and graduate level and executive/professional level in technology leadership, problem solving, software design, and e-learning product development.  He said he believes the teacher-student relationship is still paramount on campus, so IT execs should focus on collaboration to help master teachers and aspiring master teachers on their campus. "Small data is not going to be the sole driver. But it can be one small piece. We cannot unilaterally drive the change. But we can drive a lot of it. Let's start small."

The Campus Technology 2014 conference continues through July 31.

comments powered by Disqus