The term academic analytics is often used broadly, to discuss the collection, analysis, and dissemination of management information regarding the academic enterprise. More specifically, when I think about academic analytics, I tend to focus on measurable expectations for learning, or student learning outcomes (SLO), and systems for tracking student preparation for, and progress towards, mastery of these outcomes. The notion of the SLO is fast replacing the traditional concept of the credit hour as the fundamental building block of academic progress. Anyone who has participated in a recent renewal of institutional accreditation should be familiar with this revolution in the way degree programs are conceptualized, constructed, and assessed.
This introduction of the SLO poses a sea change for higher education. Previously, our entire system – whether we are talking about degree requirements, revenue and expense models, facility master plans, or co-curricular programs – was centered on the credit hour: one hour of instruction per week plus one hour of work outside the classroom. Traditional IT systems, such as the ERP or LMS, are organized around this concept at their core. The shift from credit hour to SLO requires that we begin thinking about higher education in fundamentally different ways, and many argue that the resulting shift will be one of the keys to increasing degree completion rates while also reducing the costs of a college degree.
- If the credit hour is no longer the center of the academic enterprise, this portends changes for the traditional classroom – lecture model of teaching. Given that more robust learning can occur through synchronous and asynchronous collaboration between faculty, students, and others, the shift to student learning outcomes is supporting a flurry of innovation on new modes of teaching and learning that have the potential to make higher education more scalable, more accessible, and more meaningful.
- In the long-term, this will require institutions to rethink existing financial models that are built on the concept of credit hour tuition and fees. If combined with more scalable models of teaching and learning, there is the hope that we can have a positive impact on the cost of a college degree.
These opportunities are being championed through initiatives such as the Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative sponsored by EDUCAUSE and others.
Because there is no common infrastructure for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information regarding SLOs, this poses both challenges and opportunities for IT organizations. As SLO related information is both structured and unstructured, institutions typically use a hodgepodge of technologies, from ERP and LMS applications to e-portfolios and simple file systems for this purpose. This complexity has made it much more difficult to construct a common view of student progress across all of these information systems. Because of the lack of standards for SLOs across both regional and specialty accreditation bodies, there are no commercial solutions that do this in a comprehensive way. Diversity and complexity of IT systems, together with lack of common standards and vendor support, leave institutions on their own to develop custom solutions that are expensive and difficult to maintain. While next generation ERP and LMS systems will more fully catalogue and track SLO completion, these systems are many, many years away.
Participating in, supporting, and where appropriate, convening conversations regarding the development of SLO information infrastructure is a must for today’s IT organizations. These conversations are ongoing inside institutions, as well as externally across institutions. If you are not actively participating in these conversations, you will find yourselves reacting later to critical decisions that are being made without you. These discussions will affect the future trajectory of both individual institutions and higher education generally and there is no doubt that the transformative potential of information technology has an important role to play. The question for IT organizations is whether to lead or leave this important work to others.