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Breaking Down Data Silos to Create a Comprehensive View of the Student

Mass personalization through data is key to innovation in higher education, according to Anthology Chairman and CEO Jim Milton. Here's how the company is moving forward after last year's Blackboard merger to enable data-informed decisions across the university.

Student using laptop in library and illustration of virtual icons.

Since Anthology's October 2021 merger with Blackboard, the company has been focused on developing an integrated ed tech ecosystem that leverages data to help institutions drive student success. We checked in with Chairman and CEO Jim Milton to find out what's next for Anthology and for the future of ed tech. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Campus Technology: We're approaching the one-year mark of Anthology's merger with Blackboard and I imagine there's been a lot of integration work to do to create a cohesive product portfolio. How is that going?

Jim Milton: It's been a whirlwind. I think we had an advantage in that the two companies that came together, and even the ones prior that came together to form Anthology, all had complementary solutions. So this was not a matter of picking one student information system or one LMS over another. First and foremost, we had to focus on one plus one is equal to two — essentially making sure, for the clients that enjoyed working with Blackboard or enjoyed working with Anthology or any of the predecessor companies, that we kept, minimally, that level of service to those clients. A lot of companies lose focus on the importance of that. In trying to get to one plus one is greater than two, they forget about one plus one has to equal two. So we put a lot of focus on that.

Related to that is cultural integration, all the people, the qualitative aspects of this — it was very helpful that we had similar cultures. Obviously, both companies played in the education space, so we believe in the mission of education, the transformation of lives, at the core of what we help enable through our clients. We're not dealing with different industries and different missions, if you will. So bringing that together was really important.

We actually had over 500 of our employees help come up with the values of the combined entity. So it's been a very inclusive process, to make sure that it's not just Jim Milton sitting in his office here in Boca Raton saying these will be the values or this will be the mission and vision of the company. This was a collective process. We spent a lot of time on those cultural things at the front end. It was my favorite of our strategic initiatives, because it was called Project DNA — and it was really trying to identify the DNA of the combined entity. What do we aspire to be — as you look a decade, two decades from now, what does this company look like?

CT: What are the core tenets of that company DNA?

Milton: One of the key values, and the one that was most obvious externally, was client centricity. When we make a decision, no matter what decision it is, we should have a feedback loop of client input. We announced a number of initiatives at our user conference that allow for even more client feedback, bringing all of the community together to be able to vote on great ideas. We call it the Idea Exchange. So we accelerated the amount of client feedback that we're getting — that's one manifestation of client centricity. Another aspect of this is for all of our folks to think about the student or the learner at the end of any decision that we make. Think about that adult learner, the single mother of two, or the former prison inmate who's getting an education to get a second chance at a successful life. Or just think of your traditional student, somebody's son or daughter, whatever the case may be. But think about the consequences of the decision that we're making, no matter where you sit in our company. In other words, focus on the customer of our customer, and everything that we can do to make an impact to help transform more lives. A lot of it has to do with just making sure we're all on that same page. Because to me, those are the things that a decade from now are going to be the sustainable aspect of this company.

CT: The Data and Analytics Edition of Educause's Horizon Report recently called out data silos as a pervasive problem in higher education. And the theme of breaking down silos has come up in a lot of Anthology's product announcements, for example, Intelligent Experiences. Could you talk about your focus on connecting the dots between datasets and what that enables?

Milton: The great news is that both of the companies that came together — and even going back to the creation of Anthology — were already working on this problem, and they were working on this problem as it pertained to the heterogeneous environment. For example, Campus Labs, which came together to form Anthology, had been working on this as a way of interconnecting departmental solutions, such as those in student affairs or in academic affairs, into the LMS (whether it was Blackboard or others that are in the marketplace) and starting to create an underlying data lake. With Bb Data, and the work that was going on within Blackboard, there was a tremendous amount of work being done in building out the underlying data lake infrastructure. And now you have that whole ecosystem under one roof.

We're really focused on ultimately building a single view of the learner or constituent — a comprehensive learner record. You've heard that terminology used in the industry — that's been sort of the Holy Grail of breaking down data silos. We're actually doing that. So a lot of heavy lifting is going on within our architecture group, our development group, our product management group, to make that a reality. In a way, the way to think about this is that the solutions all need to be aware of each other. If I have a system over here like an SIS, it's kind of aware of the LMS or the course evaluation toolset or alumni engagement. So I've got a map to Jim Milton as an individual, even though those systems may not have the same kind of data structure. That's what we're creating within our solutions, and we're making sure that it's available to institutions that want to plug into that, as well as to third parties that want to plug into that — it has to be open. We have an access layer — that's sort of the bottom level, which means it's open to various integrations that will occur from other solutions. We have a heavy information layer — if I'm in the student information system, or I'm in the LMS, or I'm in the CRM, there are certain reports that I want to generate or analytics that fit within those areas. And then we have something called the experience layer — that's where the awareness comes in. So I can find out the interactions that have occurred with Jim Milton in this other system and make a more informed decision in the application that I'm in.

One of the ways I would describe this: Imagine you're using Google Maps and you're given multiple routes of how you get from A to B. The preferred route, from a time optimization perspective, is to go down these roads, but maybe it's a toll road and you don't want to pay tolls — so you're given the other option. You now can make a data-informed decision. That's what we mean by Intelligent Experiences — putting more of that information at the fingertips of the decision-maker.

That decision-maker can be a student as well. We gave some examples at the user conference of things that we're working on to bring that home. For instance, helping a student determine what skills they need to focus on in order to get a job in their area of study. That's an example of giving job data, giving micro-credentialing information, and the skills aligned against the course curriculum. I know if I take these courses, I can ultimately be better equipped for that outcome that I'm seeking. You shouldn't have to have an adviser doing that for you — we should provide the tools directly to the student.

CT: So that's an example of the insights that a student can make through access to all this interconnected data. How about an example on the institutional side, whether it's a college leader or faculty member?

Milton: There are so many opportunities here for optimization. Think about a curriculum designer: What courses do I plan for a few years from now, having profitability information at my fingertips? We have a solution formerly known as Academic Economics that gives insight into profitability of a program, ultimately down to a student level. That's important information to have if I'm trying to optimize for the future from a financial perspective. If I'm an instructor in the classroom, wouldn't it be nice if I had available to me on my Blackboard Learn Ultra LMS your GPA, and did you complete your last assignment, and other factors for your engagement level? Maybe you're not comprehending, so I might switch from video to an audio format. There are a lot of things that can be done, especially if there's a dashboard that pops up that shows red, green, yellow, so I can make quick decisions on individuals. That's an example of an Intelligent Experience to make me, as a professor or a faculty member, more effective in terms of the content that I'm delivering.

CT: And what if the red, green, yellow dashboard is hanging over a person's head in the metaverse or visible through AR goggles?

Milton: It's interesting that you mention that, because that was one of the reasons why we ultimately made the decision to divest our Collaborate business. That opened us up to be able to support the metaverse — strengthening our integrations with Teams and Google and Facebook and you name it, in addition to Class who acquired our Collaborate solutions. There's a lot of innovation that's occurring in that world, so for us as a company to be able to innovate in that area, frankly, we need to integrate to it. And leverage the innovation that's occurring with the billions of dollars of R&D spend between Microsoft and Facebook and Google and Zoom. So that was part of the strategic thinking as to why we needed to divest that business and ensure that our LMS and our other solutions will take advantage of that innovation.

CT: Speaking of innovation, what are some opportunities that you see for innovation in higher education technology going forward?

Milton: I think the biggest challenge facing higher education in the United States is around retention and completion. You've probably seen the stats. I won't dwell on them, but the average student who starts a four-year baccalaureate degree in the United States — in six years, only 60% of that cohort gets their four-year degree. In six years! We set the goal at six years to make it an even bigger number. It's worse when you get to four years or community colleges; maybe 33% of community college students finish an associate degree within three years. In most other industries, that would be considered abject failure. So education technology companies have a lot of work to do to improve that. We think Intelligent Experiences is one way to do that, so that we can treat individuals as individuals, rather than cohorts of people. Everybody has their own experiences, their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own desire in terms of the outcome that they're seeking. How do you do mass personalization if you aren't able to capture and learn more about Jim Milton through his involvement with the institution? We believe that's where the ultimate innovation is going to come in.

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