Helping schools forecast future trends

In the last few years, IBM has acquired two companies to help it improve its offerings to the education industry in the predictive analytics space.

In 2007, IBM acquired Cognos to accelerate its information-on-demand business initiative, followed by the purchase in 2009 of SPSS.

IBM Cognos helps schools improve student performance, deliver on performance mandates, and improve financial performance, IBM says, by aggregating critical data and identifying trends.

For example, Cognos can help schools:

  • Calculate curriculum costs, or identify good fundraising programs.
  • Monitor student headcount and performance, program outcomes, school reputation, national agendas, and other key performance indicators.
  • Share secure web-based information with all stakeholders.
  • Manage endowments and recruitment through driver-based planning.
  • Spot high- and low-performance schools or programs.
  • Map enrollment to attendance and attendance to performance.
  • Speed compliance reporting.

IBM Cognos is currently in use by more than 1,000 institutions of higher education and more than 530 K-12 school districts (representing more than 20,000 schools), IBM says. Additionally, 13 state departments of education and the federal Education Department use IBM Cognos.

IBM’s SPSS Modeler is another tool that schools have found of great benefit in predictive analytics. With Modeler, users can access a broad range of data, including data stored in operational databases and files, as well as unstructured data such as call center notes, eMail messages, Web 2.0 sources, and survey responses, which can be mined, modeled, and deployed via a simple desktop tool or via advanced client server architecture. This allows organizations to integrate predictive analytics into their everyday business processes, IBM says.

The data can be used to create predictive models in a way that doesn’t require programming, which means users can access information without waiting weeks for their IT department to respond to data requests.

SPSS Modeler provides deeper insights and more accurate predictions than simple analytics, because it uses all data assets to provide a complete view of a school district’s data, regardless of where these are stored.

For example, a community college in California uses Modeler to predict which students are less likely to return to school, helping faculty and administrators improve retention by providing appropriate counseling, financial aid packages, and curriculum offerings.

Partly as a result of these programs, the college ranks third among the state’s community colleges for the percentage of students successfully transferring to the University of California system.

—J.N.

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UC campuses mitigate risk–and save millions in the process

The University of California’s Office of Risk Services worked with IBM to design and build an Enterprise Risk Management System based on IBM’s analytics, portal, and collaboration software to manage risks and improve security. The move helped the school mine its databases to spot trends, such as a rise in pushing and pulling injuries at medical centers. Once that particular trend was spotted, officials were able to take action to prevent such injuries, like purchasing better equipment and launching training programs designed to limit them.

Information about the real and potential risks from departments and locations across the university system’s 10 campuses, five medical centers, laboratories, and field sites is aggregated for better insights and management, so that UC administrators can isolate recurring incidents and break the cycle of injuries and costs that ensue.

As a result, injuries have been cut by 39 percent—and the cost of the university system’s insurance has dropped by $167 million since the system’s initial deployment in 2006.

“We are now able to determine where we are the most vulnerable by creating dashboards so managers can access their data in real time,” says Grace Crickette, chief risk officer for the University of California. “They can target the key variables that influence outcomes and make changes to increase productive trends or intercede in operations that are having a negative impact.”

Traditionally, risk management programs in many sectors have relied heavily on quantitative analysis, but they have lacked qualitative measures and analysis. Using the advanced analytics and business intelligence capabilities of IBM’s Cognos software, UC’s Enterprise Risk Management System uses both quantitative and qualitative data to highlight emerging risks and assist with avoidance measures. The software also has helped university officials know the best way to deploy resources—money, people, and time—which is vital during a time of severe budget cuts.

But analytics alone are not capable of making change happen, Crickette points out.

“One of the benefits of analytics is it can be a great motivator of people,” she says. “Our tools can show us how [we] are performing in different areas, which helps to motivate people to implement good policies and procedures. Analytics for analytics’ sake is, without action, not very useful. But analytics that help drive action can be very powerful.”

—J.N.

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Leading design software AutoCAD returns to Mac

Autodesk announced Aug. 30 that its AutoCAD software used by professionals to design everything from skyscrapers to pocket knives is reuniting with the Macintosh computer platform, AFP reports. A version of AutoCAD has been tailored for Macintosh computers, and applications for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch devices will let people collaborate on designs using those popular Apple mobile devices. AutoCAD is returning to Macintosh after parting ways with the platform in the early 1990s in favor of computers running on Windows software made by Microsoft, according to the company. Autodesk was not selling much of its computer-aided design program for Macintosh machines, because much of the architecture, design, and engineering world at that time opted for Windows computers. But about five years ago, Apple began shifting to Intel computer chips that let Macintosh computers run programs designed for Windows machines. AutoCAD is Autodesk’s “flagship” design and engineering software that lets people work in 3D to create detailed plans for nearly any type of product. Free applications for iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch devices will let people use those gadgets to review designs and suggest edits with the professionals behind creations able to watch in real-time on desktop Macintosh screens. The Macintosh version of AutoCAD will be released in the United States and Europe in the coming months and will be free to students at high schools or universities, where Macintosh has a strong foothold in the United States…

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Google tool tries to cut through eMail clutter

Google Inc. can sift through more than a trillion web links in a matter of seconds, but can the internet search leader help people wade through their overflowing eMail inboxes? That’s the challenge Google will try to tackle Aug. 31 with the introduction of a tool called “Priority Inbox” in its Gmail service, reports the Associated Press. The feature relies on formulas devised by Google engineers to automatically figure out and highlight which incoming messages are likely to be the most important to each Gmail user. Users who opt to turn on the Priority Inbox will see their messages separated into three categories. “Important and unread” eMail messages will be at the top, followed by messages that have been previously stamped with a star by an account holder. Everything else appears at the bottom. Switching back to the standard view of the inbox can be done with a click on a link along the left side of the web page. Google’s eMail analysis is based on a variety of factors, including a person’s most frequent contacts and how many other people are getting the same message. The content of the message also is factored into the equation. Although it might unnerve some people, the notion of Google’s computers scanning through the content of eMail isn’t new; Google has been doing it for years to determine what kinds of ads to show to the right of eMail messages and to block junk eMail, commonly known as “spam.” With more than 100 daily messages pouring into some inboxes now, people now need help to identify “the bacon and baloney” along with the spam, said Keith Coleman, Gmail’s product director…

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Advances offer path to shrink computer chips again

Scientists at Rice University and Hewlett-Packard are reporting this week that they can overcome a fundamental barrier to the continued rapid miniaturization of computer memory that has been the basis for the consumer electronics revolution, reports the New York Times. In recent years, the limits of physics and finance faced by chip makers had loomed so large that experts feared a slowdown in the pace of miniaturization that would act like a brake on the ability to pack ever more power into ever smaller devices like laptops, smart phones, and digital cameras. But the new announcements, along with competing technologies being pursued by companies like IBM and Intel, offer hope that the brake will not be applied any time soon. In one of the two new developments, Rice researchers are reporting in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society, that they have succeeded in building reliable small digital switches—an essential part of computer memory—that could shrink to a significantly smaller scale than is possible using conventional methods. More important, the advance is based on silicon oxide, one of the basic building blocks of today’s chip industry, thus easing a move toward commercialization. Separately, HP is to announce that it will enter into a commercial partnership with a major semiconductor company to produce a related technology that also has the potential of pushing computer data storage to astronomical densities in the next decade. HP and the Rice scientists are making what are called memristors, or memory resistors, switches that retain information without a source of power. “There are a lot of new technologies pawing for attention,” said Richard Doherty, president of the electronics market research company Envisioneering Group. “When you get down to these scales, you’re talking about the ability to store hundreds of movies on a single chip.”

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University pushes for better attendance with electronic scanners

Student ID cards are required at many buildings on NAU's campus.

Student ID cards are required at many buildings on NAU's campus.

Officials at Northern Arizona University are reminding students that faculty members have the choice to use new electronic scanners that track attendance at the campus’s largest lecture halls, but some students continue their vocal opposition to the technology as the fall semester gets underway.

The Flagstaff, Ariz., university will use “proximity card readers” in freshmen and sophomore classrooms that hold more than 50 students, where calling attendance would eat into valuable class time for instructors.

The scanners would require students to swipe their campus identification cards and create an electronic record that they attended class that day.

Some student protest has remained vocal as the new school year begins. A Facebook group called “NAU Against Proximity Cards” has attracted more than 1,600 members, and campus political groups have excoriated university decision makers for using more than $80,000 in federal stimulus money to create the attendance-tracking program.

Thomas Bauer, a spokesman for NAU, said “some of the negative feedback is based on misinformation” warning students that the attendance scanners will monitor where they are on campus at all time. “The readers are not tracking devices. They cannot and will not be used to track students. They are simply a tool to measure attendance.”

Bauer emphasized that the university doesn’t have an attendance policy for faculty members, and instructors will not be required to use the data collected by the electronic scanners.

“The professors who are asking to be the first to test the system agree with the philosophy behind the readers,” he said. “They also see it as a time-saver for them. Instead of calling roll for 100 students, they can let the reader do it for them, if they want to include attendance in their grading policy.”

Bauer said he was aware of the Facebook page protesting the proximity card members, but he wasn’t sure “if that’s too important or not,” adding that NAU hasn’t received a single parent complaint about the attendance-tracking program.

Student ID cards are already used at the health center, bookstore, dining halls, dormitories, and recreation center on the 23,000-student campus.

Despite the already-widespread use of student ID cards across the NAU campus, some student activists have criticized university officials for using the scanners at lecture halls this fall.

Travis Owen, president of the NAU Conservatives, wrote in a May 13 blog post that recording attendance electronically stripped “any and all liberty out of collegiate educational practices.”

“It is an extremely uncomfortable feeling, the university having data on where I am, and how often I am there,” Owen wrote. “Due to the fact that nearly all students are adults and voters, they are guaranteed certain rights to privacy. This privacy includes doing what one wishes within the law without being held accountable. This monitoring is Orwellian. … It is rules and mandates like this that lead to worse things.”

Rachel Brackett, an NAU student and creator of the Facebook page protesting the proximity cards, wrote on Facebook that the program “allows the school to keep track of our whereabouts in a ‘big brother’ way.”

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PC industry’s woes could mean bargains this fall

If you’re looking for bargains on computers, bad news from the tech industry could be good for your pocketbook, reports the Associated Press. Computer makers are scrambling for ways to goose faltering consumer demand after a weak start to the back-to-school shopping season. That could mean deeper price cuts and other promotions beyond the incentives that the industry dangled in front of shoppers to lure them into stores during the worst of the recession. The latest sign of trouble came Aug. 27 when Intel Corp. lowered its forecast for the third quarter, saying demand for consumer PCs has been weaker than expected. Because Intel’s microprocessors are used in 80 percent of the world’s PCs, its forecast essentially speaks for the health of the entire PC industry. Plus, its orders are based on how many computers the world’s biggest PC makers expect to make in the coming months, so weak chip sales now could foreshadow weak results to come from those manufacturers. Consumer spending on discounted computers was instrumental in helping buoy the industry over the past two years, while businesses cut way back—but that trend is now reversing. Consumers aren’t spending on technology as freely as they were; uncertainty about jobs is keeping their spending in check. Meanwhile, businesses have freed their budgets a bit. It’s not necessarily because they’re more sanguine about their prospects. Instead, upgrading technology makes financial sense: Maintaining old machines can be more expensive than buying new ones with more features…

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Deep-sea images reveal colorful life off Indonesia

Scientists using cutting-edge technology to explore waters off Indonesia were wowed by colorful and diverse images of marine life on the ocean floor, reports the Associated Press—including plate-sized sea spiders and flower-like sponges that appear to be carnivorous. They predicted that as many as 50 new plant and animal species might have been discovered during the three-week expedition that ended Aug. 14. More than 100 hours of video and 100,000 photographs, captured using a robotic vehicle with high-definition cameras, were piped to shore in real time by satellite and high-speed internet. Verena Tunnicliffe, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, said the images provided an extraordinary glimpse into one of the globe’s most complex and little-known marine ecosystems. “Stalked sea lilies once covered the ocean, shallow and deep, but now are rare,” she said in a written statement. “I’ve only seen a few in my career. But on this expedition, I was amazed to see them in great diversity.” Likewise, Tunnicliffe has also seen sea spiders before, but those were tiny in comparison, all around one inch long: “The sea spiders … on this mission were huge: eight inches or more across.” One animal captured on video looks like a flower, covered with glasslike needles, but scientists think it is probably a carnivorous sponge. The pink spikes, covered with sticky tissue, appear to capture food as it passes by. Other pictures showed a lavender-colored fish walking on the sea floor and the bright red arms of underwater lilies…

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CSU must reveal Sarah Palin speech contract, judge rules

California State University, Stanislaus, and its private foundation violated the state’s public-records law when they withheld a speaking contract for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin earlier this year, a judge has ruled in a case that touches on the legal issues that arise when public universities partner with private foundations, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The case gained attention last spring when faculty and students expressed alarm over the high speaking fee the university might pay former Gov. Palin to address a 50th anniversary fundraising gala. State Sen. Leland Yee and an advocacy group sued after they were denied a public-records request for the contract and any correspondence regarding Palin’s visit. School administrators denied having correspondence about it, and students found shredded documents about the visit in the administration’s dumpster. Palin gave the speech June 25 and was paid $75,000. At issue in the suit was a 2008 state law stating that regardless of any contract term to the contrary, a contract between a private entity and a state or local agency is subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public records. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne agreed with the plaintiff, Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization established to hold government and other powerful institutions accountable for their actions. He held that CSU should have made the document public because the university used the contract “in the conduct of the public’s business.” The case presented an opportunity to clarify the relationship between public universities and their private foundations under the public records act, says Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which is co-sponsor of legislation now on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk to expand the law’s reach…

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Social media help college students forge professional opportunities

Students can establish important professional connections with social media.

Students can establish important professional connections via social media.

Social media already are ingrained in most college students’ personal lives, and now some college professors are using social media as a tool to help students create professional connections and build valuable workplace skills.

At Purdue University, Mihaela Vorvoreanu’s public relations students used social media to stay connected outside of class and to network with public relations professionals for outside learning experiences and for potential employment or internship opportunities.

Vorvoreanu, a professor of computer graphics technology and organizational leadership and supervision, gathered data about her students’ experiences and feedback and is currently compiling those data into a study.

Students used Twitter, wrote blogs, read and commented on blogs, and heard from guest speakers via Skype, she said.

Vorvoreanu examined learning, motivation, teacher relationship, and career success and how social networking helped students in each of those areas.

She said students indicated through surveys and questionnaires that social networking helped them learn public relations concepts more thoroughly and put them in better positions when it came time to seek employment.

“Once I learned the basics about how [public relations] professionals used social media, I was able to teach myself even more on my own by reading blogs and reaching out to [public relations professionals],” said one student, whom Vorvoreanu quoted during an Aug. 27 webinar. “I was more prepared on my first day at my internship because I had already become familiar with these things.”

“This shows us what’s really valuable in terms of students’ learning experiences,” Vorvoreanu said.

In terms of career success, Twitter had the highest impact on helping students establish relationships with potential employers and other public relations professionals. While Vorvoreanu said she thought reading other professional blogs would have the next-highest impact, hosting guest speakers via Skype took the second spot.

Students indicated that they often taught supervisors or other colleagues how to use the social networking tools.

“Career success is important, but we see the phenomenon of reserve mentoring—students are more in control and are in higher-ranking positions and are mentoring their co-workers” because of their use of and familiarity with social media, Vorvoreanu said.

“It would be interesting to see if these tools work the same not only in other public relations and communications classes, but also in biology, chemistry, and engineering—can these tools still be applied, and would this model still apply?” she added.

“A couple of years ago it was really hard to get students on Twitter,” she said. “The tool itself is easy to use, but the culture we’ve developed on Twitter is a bit like a foreign country, and it takes a while to understand what is Twitter and what is appropriate.”

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