How Tech Companies Are Selling Colleges on Mass Data Collection

Oct 18, 2019

CHICAGO—Big Data will save you. Versions of that sales pitch echoed through the cavernous exhibit hall this week at one of the largest trade shows for tech companies selling to colleges.

Though each of the more than 275 companies exhibiting here at the annual meeting of Educause claimed a unique spin, the typical refrain mixed inspiration and fear, and went something like this: “Our tech system will help your students finish their degrees and save them (and you) money,” and “Oh by the way, if you don’t use something like our product, you won’t retain enough current and/or recruit enough new students to stay in business.”


For more from this year's Educause conference, see our related story, At Educause, a Push to Monitor Student Data is Met with Concerns About Privacy and Equity.


Bold, half-foot tall letters on one company’s display claimed its software had helped a college bring in more than $1 million in new student revenue and led another to a 53 percent increase in new students. Another exhibit promised “no more silos” in the data that colleges routinely collect in digital form.

If colleges actually bought all the tools sold here, just about every move made by students and professors in physical and virtual campuses would be tracked and analyzed in the name of efficiency. And the vision expands beyond that, as the vision is to create data profiles of students before they even arrive on campus and to continue data tracking long after they’ve graduated.

One company, for instance, sells a chatbot for a college’s admissions website that can answer questions from applicants and then carefully log each interaction for follow-up, while another promises to provide colleges a high-tech geographic map of their alumni, overlayed with income levels and indications of how likely they are to donate.

Educause threw its weight behind the large-scale use of data this summer, when it issued a joint statement with the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Association for Institutional Research titled “Analytics Can Save Higher Education. Really.”

“We strongly believe that using data to better understand our students and our own operations paves the way to developing new, innovative approaches for improved student recruiting, better student outcomes, greater institutional efficiency and cost-containment, and much more,” the statement reads. “With the change-making capacity of analytics, we should be moving aggressively forward to harness the power of these new tools for the success of our institutions and our students.”

Even at this conference, however, plenty of college officials expressed concerns about making sure student privacy is protected as Big Data comes to campus. (For more on that, see our related coverage from Educause).

College officials arrived at this week’s conference feeling plenty of pressure to save money and improve student success, of course. Demographic changes mean there will be far fewer high school graduates in coming years for colleges to attract. Many states are cutting back their support for public universities and asking more questions about how colleges operate. And tuition costs have soared to the point where more families feel priced out, leading more to ask whether college is worth it.

“People are looking for us to be making moves to make the university more fiscally sound.”
—Keith Hill, director of technology operations and infrastructure at the University of Southern Mississippi

“We’ve gone through years of budget cuts,” said Keith Hill, director of technology operations and infrastructure at the University of Southern Mississippi, which has been working to build a “data warehouse” that pulls in information from various systems on campus so that officials have a clearer picture of what is happening with their students. “People are looking for us to be making moves to make the university more fiscally sound,” he added.

Southern Mississippi’s efforts are a good example of the reality on many campuses starting to get into Big Data. They’re not looking to track every move a student makes, but they want to make better decisions about things like how much financial aid to award a prospective student so that it is enough to make attendance possible but not so much that there isn’t enough left for more-needy students.

Darren Catalano, CEO of HelioCampus, the system used by University of Southern Mississippi’s data warehouse, said that one goal of creating a central home of all the data that colleges already produce is to build a shared set of facts for leaders across campus to refer to when making decisions.

“You can skew your analytics if your department is producing them,” he said.

Leaders at Educause have embraced the term “digital transformation” to talk about the data-infused campuses they envision in the near future.

We walked the exhibit hall here looking for new ways that companies are offering this Big-Data-driven transformation. Among them...

Track student use of gyms, dining halls and other buildings

A company called Degree Analytics made its pitch this year in the Startup Alley of the exhibit hall, offering a way to use student connections to campus WiFi networks to analyze how often students attend class, go to the gym or enter the dining hall or other campus facilities.

Marc Speed, vice president for partner success at the company, said that its mission is to “increase graduation and reduce financial debt.” But in practical terms, the company logs and analyzes every time students connect their smartphones, laptops or other mobile devices with campus wireless networks to spot patterns and notice when, say, a student stops coming to meals or attending class.

“On Thursday, you get Wednesday’s class attendance,” he said, “and an alert goes out to advisers so they have more time to spend with students.”

And if colleges knew that a student suddenly stopped entering the dining hall, he said, they could look to see if the student had run out of money for meals and might need some sort of emergency aid.

Speed said that colleges have long had the ability to use WiFi to collect data on where students go on campus, though most haven’t done anything with it.

“What wireless allows you to do is go from a reactive approach of ‘oh no, this student just failed a quiz or they have failing grades at midterms or finals,’ to, ‘I understand that this is something that a student is struggling with right now, and I can reach out to proactively to get ahead of the problem,’” he said.

Will students find it creepy or invasive?

Not if colleges make it clear to students what is happening and give them a chance to opt in or opt out, argued Speed.

“Our opt-out rates are extremely low because we communicate it very effectively,” he added, noting that the system is in use at 15 campuses so far. The colleges have been helpful in setting clear “guardrails” for privacy, he added.

The company is moving “aggressively,” he said, to expand to more campuses next year.

Keep tabs on students writing research papers

Another company exhibiting in the Startup Alley here hopes to digitize the process of student research papers. The goal is to identify when students are struggling so that professors or TAs can intervene before it’s too late.

A former computer-science professor from Ireland, Keith W. Maycock, started a company called NetSearch after being frustrated by his experience overseeing student research.

“Normally you ask the students how they’re getting along, and the answer is, ‘fine,’” he said.

The traditional way to spot problems is to notice that the student stopped showing up for check-ins or when they turn in a poor paper at the end. With the NetSearch system, the students log their progress in a space that professors can track. And it includes a customized search engine that can be synced to a university library to help students home in on important research papers in their field (and professors can also get reports on how often students are using the search engine to make sure they’re on track).

He says the system makes clear to students that they are being monitored, but that they are happy to do it because they can get quicker feedback on their progress.

Monitor the teaching performance of adjuncts in online courses

Just a few booths away from NetSearch, a company called EdifyOnline presented its effort to create a digital platform to help adjunct professors find teaching gigs and to help colleges find highly-qualified adjuncts.

Vik Agarwal, the company’s co-founder, was quick to reel off the facts about how big the issue of adjunct teaching has become, noting that U.S. higher education employs more than 750,000 to a million adjuncts each year, and more than half of all teaching is now done by adjuncts.

“So what we’re trying to do is to consolidate this marketplace and create value on both sides,” he said, referring to colleges and adjuncts.

The system is designed for online teaching gigs—which, to be clear, is a smaller subset of that big pool of adjuncts. And the system is more than just a marketplace. It asks participating colleges to run its software so that the performance of the adjuncts can be measured and used by colleges to make hiring decisions.

As Agarwal put it, “that gives us the ability to accumulate some data on what is effective online education pedagogy. The instructors are 1099 employees of EdifyOnline. So they access the courses through technology we developed.” He added that his company provides training and technical support to adjuncts it works with.

The company takes a cut of the adjunct pay (which is notoriously low to begin with). That led one adjunct professor to criticize the idea during a pitch competition for the startup companies exhibiting at the conference, saying it was taking away resources from those who can least afford it.

“Our goal is not to pay them less, our goal is to find high-performing adjuncts and get them more opportunities,” Agarwal said. “The good thing here is they can access opportunities from multiple institutions in one central place instead of them having to individually pursue all of them.” Which, he added, could let them find “five to 10 courses they can teach at the same time.”

“The entire goal,” he added, “is to increase the availability and scalability of online education.”


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