Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Big Data is Coming

I remember my graduate advisor telling me, “If you want to work in community colleges, start in Institutional Research. Community colleges don’t know anything about themselves and you’ll learn about every area of the college because everyone needs data.” Twenty-five years later, that proved to be great advice because it was easy to find a job; I learned about most every area of the community college operation; and community colleges still know very little about themselves. 

The same is true here at MVCC, where individual faculty and staff know a great deal about their jobs, but the organization as a whole lacks the collective understanding of the factors that affect the college. One solution to this challenge is Big Data.

The increasing profile and interest in big data is now moving from the private sector to higher education through increased accountability and reporting requirements, performance-based funding, and the national student success agenda. In fact, SUNY’s annual conference last fall was presented with the overarching conference theme of “Big Data.”

A few years ago, I was intrigued when the employment projections said, “7 out of the 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2015 don’t exist yet.” A data scientist is an example of a new job category that is finding employment in big businesses like Amazon, Apple, and Google. Ever wonder how they know what books you might want to read or songs you might want to buy? It’s called data analytics or big data. I recently heard of a petabyte as a unit of computer memory that is 1024 terabytes, which in turn is 1024 gigabytes. I was not surprised that a new category was needed until I later learned that after petabytes, there are exabytes, zettabytes, yottabytes, brontobytes, and, the largest of all, geopbytes – talk about big data!

The collection and analysis of large databases to inform decision-making has been around for some time, but the evolution of the field is rapidly moving toward predictive analytics – using data to not only inform decision-making, but to predict human behavior based on intentional analysis.

Having always worked in community colleges, I’m hesitant to quickly translate business models and trends into the educational sector. However, predictive analytics and big data seem relevant and useful. Consider the following:
  • Students shouldn’t have to apply for graduation – we should have enough data to tell them when they’re eligible to graduate, right?
  • Why aren’t colleges able to better explain – specifically – swings in enrollment and the reasons for them?
  • If we know the factors that put students at risk, why aren’t more interventions done earlier in a student’s educational journey?
  • With the right data collection and analysis, shouldn’t colleges be able to STOP doing more things that don’t work and investing more in the things that do work?
  • We send so much data to the State and SUNY through mandatory reporting requirements that they know more about us than we do about ourselves.
MVCC recently joined the Achieving the Dream (ATD) national network as part of our commitment to student success. Now in its tenth year, the network has helped its member colleges enhance their ability to collect, analyze, and use data to inform decision-making at all levels. Many colleges have stopped doing things that they thought were good ideas and well-intentioned initiatives, because when they analyzed the data, they weren’t making a difference in student success. It is still very early in the process for us – we haven’t even attended the kickoff institute for new member colleges.  However, I am confident that MVCC’s membership in ATD will accelerate our entry into the world of Big Data, which will be a much more productive transition if we move there through our own initiative than being dragged there by some other entity. Who knows, we could even learn something about ourselves.

If you have any questions or comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.