The biggest potential, and biggest challenge, to Big Data in higher ed

By Troy Williams
September 11th, 2015

Slimming down the big data discussion to what really matters.

big-data-higherThe era of big data in higher education has arrived. However, it’s important for campuses to figure out how to properly capture, manage, and use this data wisely in order to improve student outcomes and retention at their institution. If the data is not properly utilized, the institution runs the risk of wasting both time and money. It’s imperative that this data is properly gathered and assessed in order to turn the results into useful information that will help enhance the institution for both current and future students.


The potential: One of the many worthwhile uses for big data in higher education is improving student performance by increasing the effectiveness of professors. Data can be used to compare a student’s performance to the rest of the class, and also to compare the class performance as a whole to those of previous classes. In learning directly from the students what is working and what isn’t, institutions can work with professors to create more effective courses and teaching methods. If students are learning more effectively, this can greatly improve retention and completion rates—something all institutions strive for.


The hangup: However, one of the main concerns for utilizing big data in higher education is the cost, but this should be viewed as a meaningful investment to better the institution rather than an unnecessary expense. When you improve areas like student retention and outcomes, the effect will be a greater ranking—making your institution more appealing to future applicants. And if an institution is more appealing and in demand, there is the possibility for an increase in funding opportunities. While the initial investment may be tough to justify, the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks for institutions of all sizes.


The unthought-of pitfall: The potential for overinvestment in analytics and reports is another challenge faced by many institutions. Too much information can be overwhelming and ultimately unusable, and results may not measurably impact student performance and retention if the proper steps are not taken. But when used correctly, this data can help higher education institutions compare their student, professor, and curriculum performance against other institutions, which offers great potential for improvement and can lead to greater student retention.


The concern as old as…time: Another concern is the impact these programs will have on the administration. Will their workload increase? And how can they manage and use this data to assist them in their role? While it may take time to make the adjustment and learn how to best utilize these data programs, the findings can prove quite useful to the administration when it comes time to make decisions for the institution. By knowing what works and what doesn’t from the recorded data, it will simplify the decision-making process—lessening the burden for the administrators.


The key to success: In order to implement a successful analytics program, teamwork is key. Research has shown that these programs prove to be most successful when members across different departments work together to perform the tests, collect data, and analyze the findings (Bichsel, 2012). It is likely that some departments will view big data as a necessity, while others deem it a burden. The success of a big data program in any institution relies heavily on all parties involved—if departments are unable to work together to properly utilize the data, they will risk failure.


The thing to avoid: Institutions need to learn how to build and use their data programs in the right context in order to avoid false positives, which can lead to unnecessary or costly decisions. It’s important that administrators determine which sections of data are most useful, and ensure that the findings are utilized in a way that increases student retention without negatively impacting the institution or its stakeholders.

The benefits of big data in higher education are endless, but it’s imperative that these programs are executed correctly. With the right approach, these programs can be used to enhance institutions in a multitude of ways for students, instructors, and administrators alike.


Bichsel, Jacqueline. Analytics in Higher Education: Benefits, Barriers, Progress, and Recommendations (Research Report). Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, August 2012, available from

Troy Williams HeadshotTroy Williams is President and General Manager of Macmillan New Ventures, where he is responsible for identifying emerging technologies and trends that will have a major impact on student performance and outcomes.

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