Brainstorming Ways Universities Can Use Data

Stephen Wisniewski speaking at the Advanced Analytics Summit.

As the world turns to more data-driven decision making, universities are also starting to see how analytics can help create better student experiences while also increasing efficiency by projecting future trends, events and behaviors. 

But there is not enough information for universities faced with the challenges of using this data, say the organizers of Pitt’s Advanced Analytics Summit, which returns for its second annual event on Oct. 17 and 18.

“When I came into my role, I started calling colleagues across the country to find out what they were doing,” said Stephen Wisniewski, vice provost for data and information at Pitt. “I found a desert of information, and there were not really any organizations out there to help guide what we should be doing as an academic institution. We decided to put this summit together, because there seemed to be a need for an organized way to develop and share advanced analytics best practices, and people were very interested.”

The 2018 inaugural summit saw intellectuals from universities across the country brainstorming ideas for advanced analytics use in higher education, and this week’s second summit will see more than 30 academic institutions represented. 

Ann E. Cudd speaking at a lectern"Now in its second year, Pitt's Advanced Analytics Summit serves as an important gathering point for thought partners nationally and internationally,” said Ann E. Cudd, provost and senior vice chancellor at Pitt. “As we come together to share ideas that advance the application of data analytics in higher education, we do so with a common goal: to ensure that we are working to set the highest standards for what is expected and achievable for the use of data when it comes to planning for our students' success."

This year, panelists will focus more on challenges universities are facing when it comes to using analytics to make informed decisions, including best practices for sensitive data and federal data-sharing laws.

“Last year, we wanted to get a basic understanding of what was going on across the academic world for the implementation of analytics for student outcomes,” Wisniewski said. “This year, we’re diving more deeply into analytics challenges, spending more time on specific issues.”

The summit’s keynote speaker this year is Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. There, she directs the Research and Policy Institute, which links research, policy and effective student affairs practice in support of student success.

Pitt has been implementing strategies for better student success since last year’s summit. One example compared the impact of digital course materials to that of traditional materials on Pitt students’ performance.

“We found that there was generally no difference between the two, though in some cases, performances were improved with digital content,” said Monica Rattigan, executive director of stores and strategic direction at Pitt. “We believe this is because of the newer inclusive access program on campus, where materials are delivered directly through CourseWeb, and open education resources which are either free or have reduced costs for students. While this wasn’t part of the study, our guess is having these materials on the first day of class for free played a factor.”

At the summit, Rattigan will present findings that she, Wisniewski and other Pitt colleagues discovered. 

Rattigan said it’s important to use deep data on campus in ways that enrich students’ experience and not in potentially harmful ways, and that the summit allows the University to bring attention to the data analytics groups that exist. 

“Before I became involved with the course materials study, I didn’t even know that was a possibility or even a resource on campus,” she said.

Wisniewski said Pitt is also using data analytics in a number of other areas, including working with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid to evaluate the effectiveness of marketing materials for prospective students.

“What we found was printed materials don’t really have an impact on students applying to or visiting Pitt. This was a big expense and because of this information, we were able to cut back on printed materials and utilize those resources elsewhere,” he said.

For a full list of speakers, the agenda and other information, visit the summit's website