Published on 2013/03/29
AUDIO | Data and Technology to Reduce Institutional Silos
In 10 years’ time, it’s likely that better use of available data will be a major influence on the way higher education institutions operate, and better communication between different departments and internal organizations will help reduce and remove institutional silos.

The following interview is with Phil Ice, vice president for research and development at the American Public University System. Ice has done a great deal of work in the field of technology enhancement and improvement. In this interview, Ice discusses how technology could be better utilized in the management of higher education institutions in 10 years’ time, and shares his thoughts on what kinds of technologies we will see emerging as commonplace in the next decade.

1. Is technology being utilized to its fullest potential in the management of higher education institutions today?

In general, I would have to say the answer to that is, no. … When you take a look at the experiences that our learners have with technology in their daily lives and look at what’s happening at the higher ed level, there is really somewhat of a disconnect. The technology being utilized, perhaps five years behind what is in commercial sites, and there’s a real opportunity, in my opinion, for institutions to improve to provide the highest quality experience for their students.

2. What functionalities would most improve the management of your institution?

Really, this comes down to the application of data-driven decision making and I will go back to my reference to commercial technologies.

For many years, business has leveraged analytic, big data to really help drive change for their customers. Well, education has made a lot of … decisions based on supposition without the underlying data. However, we’ve seen this large change within about the last two years with some institutions that in the vanguard are really leveraging every piece of data that they have about their student, building very advanced big warehouses and then using modern procedures to analyze that data to best understand student needs, student retention, the best techniques for pedagogical design and also to help with issues like scheduling of courses and promoting instructor satisfaction.

So, that’s perhaps the biggest technological innovation I see that’s impacting higher ed administration and will probably set the trend for the next decade.

3. What tools do you think will emerge in a decade’s time to make higher education management easier?

… I’ll come back to the access to data being number one. The more we know about our students, the better we can serve them, both at the very tactical level in the classroom, but also from a very strategic perspective on being able to analyze what services are most in-demand, what services are most likely to have an impact on retention, progression, what services are really needed to provide optimal staffing to instructors.

For administrators to understand what type of scheduling would be put in place — and this is from a general administrative perspective — it creates efficiencies across all the verticals that exist within the university, much like we think of horizontal integration data will allow us to have this very tight horizontal integration. What is unseen in most of higher ed — and has been because of its very traditionalist approach to administration — is that each entity, be it student services, be it academic, be it facilities, etc. all think that they are in a silo. When you really start analyzing what’s going on, we see that any decision that’s made within the university has an impact upon another part of the university. So understanding those relationships are critical to effective management. And data will allow us to do that.

4. What is the biggest barrier standing in the way of fully integrating technology into the operations of a higher education institution? 

From a technological perspective, there are very few barriers that we actually have. All the technologies that will enable … the integration of silo systems exists now; however it is more of a matter of having the political capital and getting the buy-in of the institutional stakeholders — everyone from faculty to staff to student leaders — on understanding that technology is not a threat and that change is a positive factor.

The academy … has been very resistant to change since its inception, and technology, the technological advances that we’re seeing right now, are no exception, so getting the political capital from the president and provost and chief information officers is really critical to breaking down these silos. It’s not a technology problem; it’s a human capital issue.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the integration of technology into higher education management in 10 years’ time?

I see a couple of things. Today, we have these very siloed infrastructures for what is considered the traditional campus, and we see it’s thought of as the residential experience, be it from a small liberal arts college to a public land-grant flagship university or to a private school. Well, as we start to live in a more connected world, we’re starting to see the model being developed by online universities, where we have substantive distribution of faculty and resources, not just locally, but on a global basis.

Technology is an enabler that is going to allow us to reach out and have best-of-breed faulty, best-of-breed learning experiences. For things now, if whenever we have a video conference for instance, it’s still somewhat cumbersome. Within 10 years’ time, I see us really just simply clicking one button and being able to join into any of these conversations. Things like augmented reality are going to allow us to bring experiences over to the users who are disconnected from the main campus and really allow the campus to become a global entity.

The online institutions — those institutions that specialize in online, be they for-profit or publics — are really starting to lay down the precursor for this ubiquitous connectivity backed by data-driven decision making and I think we’re really going to see that become the generalized trend.

Certainly, trying to predict which technologies are going to become ubiquitous in 10 years is rather a fool’s errand, if you will. … We can see some of the trends; data-driven decision making, augmented reality and natural user interfaces that allow us to actually be there when we’re at a distance and bring best of breed in to serve our students and help us administer the processes. These are the trends that I see, and I’m hoping I’m close to being on the mark. These are the things that administrators should not fear but rather embrace to allow their jobs to be easier; it will allow more buy-in from faculty and allow us to leverage efficiencies across the campus.

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Readers Comments

Frank Gowen 2013/03/29 at 6:21 am

It can be difficult to overcome the silo mentality that those working in higher education tend to have. But in order to make big data work, there needs to be better information and records sharing within institutions. With this in mind, I’m interested to know whether you have any suggestions for breaking down those barriers and encouraging greater collaboration among departments. Does the promise of using the big data that is collected to drive decision making encourage departments to share what they know?

Ursula V.F. 2013/03/30 at 11:13 am

In times of budgetary constraints, there is considerably less room to take risks and it thus becomes especially important to move to a data-driven decision-making model. Institutions may balk at the initial start-up costs and the effort needed to gather and analyze the data, but it pays off in the end when you achieve the results your data told you to expect.

Kevin Wilson 2013/03/30 at 11:49 pm

To gather, store and analyze the big data Ice is talking about is no small feat! It seems this is where it may be useful (perhaps even necessary) for an institution to hire a third-party developer to convert and/or consolidate existing data and records management systems. A third-party developer would have the expertise to ensure the data was relational and relevant to the institution’s needs. They could also design a user-friendly interface that would allow multiple users, with varying levels of technical skill, to mine the data.

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