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Data Analytics

Using Data to Expose Industry Needs — and Design Degree Programs Accordingly

Here's a university that started planning its degree programs with the end in mind: making sure students had what they needed to find and keep a good job in their field.

The concept of student success holds many meanings, with data at the core of all of them. For some schools it's wrapped around the notion of alerts pinned to particular student activities: Gosh, he hasn't logged into the learning management system in two weeks; inform the instructor to reach out. Or, oh, she's not using her meal card; notify her adviser for follow-up. For others, it's all about targeting "best-fit" students and better managing recruitment and enrollment funnels. But, really, in this era of accountability, maybe the ultimate definition of student success ought to be somebody graduating with the smarts, skills and connections needed to get a good job in a given field.

A New Jersey university used that last meaning to help define new growth areas for its school of business. The use of basic data anybody could really access led to the launch of one new undergraduate degree major and two new graduate-level programs, all of which are meeting enrollment goals.

Starting with the Outcome

To get a bead on opportunities in the field of business analytics education, Montclair State University turned to a team of internal data experts to figure out what a new education program should cover — the very same people who would eventually be teaching its courses. In a paper published in 2015 in Information Systems Education Journal, three faculty members described how they used data to map out curriculum for a proposed business analytics program. Development of this kind of program was being undertaken in a highly competitive atmosphere. As the paper noted, graduate and undergraduate programs on business analytics had already been introduced at 130 institutions in just the previous five years. What set this effort apart, however, was its intended emphasis on "competency-based instruction" — if they could pinpoint just what that meant in this context.

Rashmi Jain

The three researchers came with industry backgrounds where they dealt with data; one from telecom, another from B2B and B2C ecommerce. The third, Rashmi Jain, worked for many years as a consultant at Accenture before joining higher education, most recently as chair of the then-fledgling department, Information Management and Business Analytics. They approached the development project as a greenfield effort for the university. "We did not want to look at what was legacy and repackage it," Jain said.

To determine what skills were most needed in the work world, the team turned to job site and conducted a search of open positions in the New York City metro area using the keywords "business analytics." Some 5,800 job results were shortlisted in two ways: 1) by including only positions within "large, established companies"; and 2) by focusing on skills "commonly expected in the industry for similar positions."

They figured out that a business analytics student needed learning in three areas: applied statistics, use of specific technologies and tools, and business domain expertise. Then they examined the curriculum structure at six existing and possibly competing graduate programs within the same geographic area that had been around for at least two years.

The result of that data work is reflected in the undergraduate concentration in business analytics, introduced in the same year as the report was published, and more recently, in fall 2017, with the launch of a master of science in business analytics and a graduate-level certificate program on the same subject.

Giving Students Real-World Experience

However, mapping the curriculum was just the first element of ensuring student success. There are three others that come into play, according to Jain: capstone courses, internships and demonstration of value-add for the long-term.

Capstone courses. The last course a student takes in the undergraduate and master's degree programs is the capstone, where students have the chance to do a "real business analytics project" for a company, said Jain. Faculty members serve as advisers to help "carve out a scope which is meaningful enough" where students can use the tools and methods they've studied in school, including Python, Tableau, SAS and XLMiner. An example might be a project in which the student looks at specific customer segments and demographics and conducts a cluster analysis to understand how the demographics are affecting the buying patterns of those segments.

Internships. Following the capstone, the expectation is that the student will earn an internship and continue working within the same company on additional projects. It's too early to scrutinize the outcomes of those internships, since the undergraduates are really just entering that phase. However, that leads to the third — and ultimate element of success.

Job offers. "When they finally are able to demonstrate through these opportunities that they are going to add value on the long term ongoing basis, that's the ultimate outcome — what industry says about the students," said Jain.

And while it's nice to think that companies welcome with open arms successful interns, the truth is that companies lack "a governance structure right now to understand what to do with this entry-level talent," she noted. "In many cases our students are defining their own space. They are helping companies figure out what to do with them and their new skill sets."

As Jain explained, the value-add often emerges as the students introduce management to use of new tools. "The companies are really surprised by how much efficiency that brings about — [such as] adding visualization to their analytics." In some cases, as a result of what the student has introduced, companies have gone out and bought a given tool. "Or they've brought over database administrators on these projects and have worked with their DBA and analytics teams to figure out a better infrastructure, a better design of the data model where they can leverage the analytics in their decision-making." Employers have included Johnson & Johnson, NBCUniversal, ADP, UPS, Wakefern Food and Bed Bath & Beyond.

In some cases, students have joined consulting firms that aid small and mid-sized companies that don't have their own data teams. In one case, a student armed with that undergraduate degree was hired as a principal data scientist.

Join a REN to Find Communities of Practice

If data is the yeast that raises hope for student success initiatives, where can schools that are behind find their starter? Ed Chapel, senior vice president and chief operating officer for NJEdge, New Jersey's research and education network (REN), said that while researchers with academia have long turned to RENs for their data storage, management and sharing needs, what's lesser known is that RENs also provide specialized committees or "communities of practice" for information sharing.

"The technology landscape is very, very complex," said Chapel. "By participating in an organization comprised of multiple institutions that are managing it, you really gain — no pun — a genuine edge in having your head around what is going on in this dynamic digital space. There is a real need for leadership in institutions because the data that are out there are overwhelming."

His advice: "Participate in communities of practice, and you'll be far better equipped to navigate the changeable reality that is higher ed today."

How Montclair Plans to Maintain Student Success

Although Montclair's business analytics programs have proven popular among prospective students, Jain and her colleagues are doing everything they can to remain industry-relevant so the programs where they teach stay relevant too:

  • Bringing on industry practitioners as instructors and presenters. Being within 13 or 14 miles of the heart of midtown Manhattan helps the program by enabling faculty to tap the expertise of guest speakers as often as possible.
  • Monitoring social media. As Jain explained, LinkedIn has proven to be a powerful source to expose industry needs — "deficiencies, gaps, what researchers are saying."
  • Using business people as advisers. The advisory board is packed with representatives from industry.
  • Scrutinizing for what's new. By developing from scratch, said Jain, the department has avoided the mediocrity — and faculty who may be out of touch — that can seep into programs from simply "repackaging existing courses."

Plus, faculty are encouraged to stay involved in industry alliances. Jain herself is on the board of the New York chapter of the Society for Information Management and the New Jersey Big Data Alliance, for which she serves as chair of education and training. Plus, last year she was appointed by her state's governor as the large data systems and data security expert on the New Jersey Integrated Population Health Data Project. "I try as much as possible to find opportunities to get out and listen to what the real world is saying," she said.

"But as far as outcomes measurement is concerned, keeping track of what the job market is looking for is an important part," Jain noted. "Every day it is changing."

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