LEADING LEARNING Processes borrowed from business help educators to serve students better
Educational organizations around the world are challenged to improve efficiency and control costs while ensuring that learners and educators have the resources and support they need to succeed. To help achieve those goals, more universities are adopting processes and tools originally developed for businesses.
Like businesses, educational institutions exist to service the needs of a client group -- in this case students, who need good educations to be successful in life; and communities that, in order to thrive, need well-educated citizens.
“Even if universities are autonomous, they have to perform functions and to develop procedures in order to fulfill the expectations of the customers,” Mihaela Drăgan, Diana Ivana and Raluca Arba of Babeş-Bolyai University in Romania wrote in a paper for the 21st International Economic Conference in Sibiu, Romania. “In order to improve students’ and graduates’ satisfaction and to remain competitive, universities should manage their business process(es) similar to enterprises.”
Studies suggest that universities are poised to invest heavily in technology. US-based technology research organization Gartner, for example, predicts that worldwide higher education sector spending on technology will grow 1.2% in 2016 to reach US$38.2 billion and lists predictive analytics at Number 2 in its Top 10 strategic technology recommendations for higher education CIOs. Gartner notes that higher education leaders have shifted focus from reducing costs and driving efficiencies toward using technology to enhance competitive advantage and support emerging business models.
“Higher education is still mostly considered a conservative and slow-moving industry, with the majority of innovation coming from outside the traditional education IT organization,” said Jan-Martin Lowendahl, vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner, in a press release announcing the findings. “However, it is only a matter of time until all this innovation will impact the institution and, ultimately, the CIO.”
Businesses in many industries use big data to get detailed insights into their markets, customers and product success. Now educators are using big data to understand how they can deliver the best service to students.
“Every educational institution has large volumes of student data, but in the past we’ve mainly been reacting to it,” said Param Bedi, vice president for Library & Information Technology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
“Now, we’re using that information to do predictive analytics and identify some of the things we need to pay attention to, which allows us to make data-informed decisions.”
“MANUAL SCHEDULING OF FACULTY IS NOT A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS PRACTICE.”ASSOCIATE VICE PRESIDENT OF SCHEDULING AT AMERICAN PUBLIC UNIVERSITY SYSTEM
In 2015, Bucknell University examined student data covering five years and identified better predictors of student success and engagement. The aim is to increase its already high rate of student retention between the first and second year of study.
“If we’re admitting students, then it’s up to us to make sure we’re giving them the environment to succeed on campus,” Bedi said. “In most institutions, the biggest loss of students is between the first and second year. So we looked at pre-enrollment and first-semester data for our first-year and second-year students, and we were able to identify certain elements that contribute to a student choosing to leave. This enables us to make data-informed decisions and put in place processes, programs and interventions aimed at keeping those students.”
The project is being introduced for students admitted for the fall 2016 semester, and Bedi is confident it will be a success.
“At Bucknell, our first-to-second-year retention is strong at about 93%, but we want to take it to 97%,” Bedi said. “This is a long-term process and we’ll know if it’s working by the next census date (September 2017), when we look at the retention rates. But we have created a good predictive model based on our examination of the data and a lot of consulting. We’ll be engaging with faculty governance groups and others to see how we can work collectively to put measures in place for these students.”
“EVERY EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION HAS LARGE VOLUMES OF STUDENT DATA, BUT IN THE PAST WE’VE MAINLY BEEN REACTING TO IT. NOW, WE’RE USING THAT INFORMATION TO DO PREDICTIVE ANALYTICS AND IDENTIFY SOME OF THE THINGS WE NEED TO PAY ATTENTION TO, WHICH ALLOWS US TO MAKE DATA-INFORMED DECISIONS.”VICE PRESIDENT FOR LIBRARY & INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, BUCKNELL UNIVERSITY
Other universities are implementing data-based business processes as well, but Bedi believes Bucknell is on the cutting edge of the trend. The university is also looking at implementing best-of-breed enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to standardize processes and increase efficiency.
“These ERP packages are causing a lot of disruption in our business processes because each department in education is so used to doing things a certain way,” Bedi said. “We probably have 10 different ways to do one thing right now, but we’re aiming to standardize that and look at the commonalities among them. These best-of-breed ￼solutions are causing some disruption on campus, but they’re really helping us to think about best practices rather than Bucknell practices.”
Efficient scheduling – a skill mastered by many businesses – is a particularly difficult challenge for schools that need to deliver hundreds of courses. American Public University System (APUS) offers its courses online; new sessions start each month, 12 months a year. Many of its courses have several sections running simultaneously, and each of those sections might be assigned to one or more faculty.
For many years, all of this was scheduled manually by more than 40 program directors. Starting in 2013, however, APUS worked with a corporate planning, scheduling and supply chain optimization software company based in the Netherlands and the US to implement an Automated Course Scheduling and Balancing System (ACSB).
“The purpose of the ACSB was to simplify the course scheduling process to become more scalable, eliminate costly overruns, ensure course sections are always available for student registrations, optimize faculty scheduling and standardize scheduling practices,” said Brian Blodgett, associate vice president of Scheduling at APUS. “The objective of the tool is to automate the scheduling process in order to reduce program director administrative tasks and increase the scalability of processes to accommodate growth. Manual scheduling of faculty is not a sustainable business practice.”
The ACSB went live in March 2013, and was run by a scheduling team of just three people. The system allows APUS to develop an annual schedule that balances faculty/student counts and course loads over the entire calendar year while optimizing faculty course assignment.
“Optimizing full-time faculty capacity over the course of the year also helps us budget more accurately in terms of part-time faculty versus salaried full- time faculty,” Blodgett said. “Having an automated tool also helps us to standardize scheduling practices and make sure that best practices are used. For example, we can ensure that faculty does not teach too many students at once and that they do not teach too many unique courses at once.”
In a digitally connected world, data- driven processes are changing the expectations of students and educators alike. For example, after the Australian National University (ANU) implemented a suite of IBM Business Analytics software to gather, verify, analyze and present information that had previously been stored in 30 separate IT systems, it saw a change in the types of discussions occurring among its staff members.
“The most important change is cultural,” Chris Grange, executive director for Administration and Planning at ANU, said in an IBM case study about the project. “By using our data to show people new opportunities, we’re moving from a debate about finance to a debate about how the university achieves its goals.”
“SERVICE-USER TERMINOLOGY, SUCH AS DISCUSSIONS OF ‘CUSTOMER JOURNEYS,’ IS PERMEATING EDUCATION.”SENIOR LECTURER IN DIGITAL LEARNING, GLASGOW CALEDONIAN UNIVERSITY
Sheila MacNeill, senior lecturer in Digital Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, notes that students’ expectations about the use of data, and the language used by educators, are becoming increasingly businesslike.
“Service-user terminology, such as discussions of ‘customer journeys,’ is permeating education,” MacNeill said. “Students also are more used to data, ratings and metrics being used in their everyday lives, such as on retail websites or social media. This is not yet widespread in an educational context, but there is a changing balance.”
MacNeill noted that business processes can help educational organizations get the best from their data, but they need to take a rigorous, ethical approach to its use. “As we use more technology in our learning and teaching, we have to be clear, consistent and transparent about how we’re using that data and put processes in place to make sure it’s properly anonymized,” MacNeill said. “At a holistic level, there’s a huge opportunity for educators in understanding business processes better and looking at things from a data perspective, but a lot of work is needed to define the key insights we want to gain from our data.” ◆
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