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Connecting data silos in higher ed

Data lives up to its full potential when it's shared and used across campus
University Business, April 2018
Quiz: Are data silos a problem on your campus?
Quiz: Are data silos a problem on your campus?

IT leaders at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recognized that unbundling, analyzing and sharing learning management system data could produce results, particularly in driving online students’ success. So they partnered with the College of Education to make it happen.

Student behaviors such as ignoring the syllabus or not opening assignments will get flagged for intervention.

Every department at every college houses reams of data that could help colleagues meet their goals. But that data often remains cloistered in departmental silos, unshared and unused to its full potential.


Online exclusive: Data providers on tackling the data silo problem


Administrators break down or connect those silos to maximize their use of information, says Patrick Casey, ITS middleware services manager for UNC Chapel Hill.  Otherwise, duplicated efforts and costs result.

“Data hoarding can give the gatekeepers a sense of control or political power within an organization,” says Stephen Boro, senior associate director of customer relationship management (CRM) at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.


Sidebar: Case study: Shawnee State’s data silos improvement plan


Incompatible systems don’t help. “Missed opportunities abound when departments are collecting different information, or the same information in different ways. That makes analysis of the data difficult, if not impossible,” he says.

While some departments or individuals may view efforts to break down data silos as an attempt to consolidate power, it’s a necessary process for modern institutions to move forward as student-centered organizations.


Sidebar: Case study: Data governance team at Baldwin Wallace


“If you’re not able to get the data the students need and use, you’re not successful,” says Megan Bolter, institutional research analyst at Shawnee State University in Ohio.  

Here’s what several higher ed institutions are doing to break down or connect data silos.

Use available technology

At the Fox School of Business, leaders implemented Salesforce, a well-known CRM tool in the business world, to help manage, track and share admissions and recruitment data formerly captured on individual spreadsheets. The new system allows the college to offer responsive customer service.

Any authorized staff member can jump in and get caught up with a student case if there is a question, says Boro. “Tracking current student activities and engagement was formerly closely held by each program.”

Fox also uses Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence engine, to reach the appropriate prospective student populations and to gauge responses. Those responses are fed back into Salesforce and into collaboration tools such as Workplace by Facebook for later data analysis.

“We embarked on a crawl-walk-run strategy with our end users, doing show-and-tell demonstrations and identifying key staff to be our grassroots evangelists,” Boro says of the Fox School’s CRM implementation. “The graduate programs staff would agree that our college has access to better and more useful admissions information than ever before.”

Those staffers have begun making suggestions about new information to track. Boro continues to recommend how to collect data to explore insights across various campus functions.

“Over the last four years, the amount of data generated in our operations has increased by an order of magnitude, bringing with it many benefits and some unexpected ramifications,” he says. For example, the team can now track the effect that events, emails and other outreach has on interest, applications and yield.

On the challenges side, having so much information flowing in required his team to learn new skills in query and data visualization.

Create conversations

At Indiana University Southeast, leaders of various departments rarely meet in person, which perpetuates data silos, says Ronald Severtis Jr., director of the office of institutional effectiveness.

That’s why the chancellor’s office convened a monthly Academic Council meeting to discuss data with the academic affairs director, and all deans and vice chancellors.

Severtis supplies the group with one data report at a time, such as recent alumni survey data or retention trends. “That way, we do not overwhelm the attendees with globs of data,” he says.

Focusing on smaller pieces of digestible data lets the group zero in on the methodology of collection or the meaning of certain survey questions. While the Academic Council has met only a few times so far, “the deans have had strong questions about the data presented,” Severtis says.

They’re learning more about the types of data available and how it can influence decisions across campus.

One lesson is that institutional research is different than the scholarly research deans regularly work with. Severtis works to show them that rather than worrying about statistical representation and response rates, they simply need to pay attention to the insight their students are providing via the data.

Democratize the data

At Coppin State University in Baltimore, silos prevented staff members from making informed decisions that could support student success. The university turned to Blackboard Analytics to “democratize” its data, and now a central dashboard makes all public information available to all employees.

(Access to more detailed information is governed by FERPA and HIPPAA requirements.)

After implementation, officials saw an immediate increase in faculty outreach to students, says President Maria Thompson. “Faculty members no longer had to wait for a third party to generate a report on the students,” she says.

Despite several years of decline, the fall 2016 freshman class size was 50 percent larger than the year prior. In addition, the graduation rate has increased by 20 percent.

Before the data democratization project, Thompson shared analytics dashboards to lead the university cabinet and share governance discussions. Today,  she says, “it’s no longer just the cabinet that sees the data. Everyone sees the data, regardless of their position.”

Faculty and staff can view “the same data, at the same time, every day,” she adds. “We have common discussion points that facilitate better communication toward a common goal: student success.”

Ahmed El-Haggan, vice president for information technology, led the project, with the IT department working to customize the campus dashboard based on input from focus groups. An IT governance committee developed guiding principles for the project, such as:

  • emphasizing that data is used for decision support and not for punitive or staff/faculty evaluation measures
  • making sure data is not segregated by college or department
  • providing deans and chairs access to all students’ analytics reports
  • allowing any faculty member, with the authorization of their chair, to have such access

In addition to providing staff training, IT leaders promoted the dashboard via email and social media, as well as showcased evidence of the data’s impact.

Shawnee State is working to implement a similar dashboard using Tableau. Staff already have access to data, but the current system isn’t user-friendly, says Bolter. Rather than offering open access to all employees, requests for data will go through the Office of Institutional Research.

“I’m the key-holder on our campus,” Bolter says. “We decided to view silos as neither good or bad, but a neutral thing we have to deal with. Sometimes there is a need to protect data, so we have to take that into account.”  


Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer and a frequent contributor to UB.