In higher education, Big Data is king

Serving as a national model for transparency, The University of Texas System Productivity Dashboard is at the forefront of Big Data assimilation

In the ever-changing landscape of technology, massive amounts of data are available at our fingertips. What are the implications for institutions of higher education? How can this data be used to provide a frame of reference and roadmap for strategic planning? How can it be managed and governed? How can its use be fostered on campus to improve student success, analyze building maintenance trends or track a researcher’s productivity?

Big Data – a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional database management tools – brings new opportunities and challenges for institutions of higher education.

A year after its inception, The University of Texas System Productivity Dashboard is at the forefront of Big Data assimilation, serving as a national model for transparency in higher education due to its accessibility to the public. The Dashboard is available to the public without a login via the UT System website. It offers an unprecedented look at how the UT System institutions are performing on a variety of measures and provides 10 core indicators of performance at all System institutions, such as graduation rates and degree costs, as well as other longitudinal data that allow students, parents, stakeholders and others to assess the effectiveness and productivity of universities.

Recently, new metrics have been added to the Dashboard, including licensure exam pass rates for Engineering, Law, Nursing, Pharmacy, Medicine, etc.; admissions test scores  for the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, and GRE; tuition and affordability, with peer comparison data; undergraduates per professional academic advisor; and time to a bachelor’s degree by field.

New features include a side navigation panel allowing for easier movement in the portal; visual navigation on the first “page” with quick links to most frequently used reports; and the ability to select a view for the Dashboard (System overview, single campus, all academic or all health).

“It’s a whole new world in higher education,” said Stephanie Huie, Ph.D., during the opening session of a day-long symposium, “Texas Higher Education SAS Day,” held at The University of Texas at Austin’s West Pickle Research Center on Dec. 4. Huie, assistant vice chancellor of strategic initiatives, and Sandra Woodley, D.B.A., vice chancellor of strategic initiatives, led the event in partnership with Wes Avett, senior account executive at SAS, a business analytics software and service company providing the technology that fuels the Dashboard.

Huie explained that with demands for more accountability and transparency, increased productivity and improved efficiency, along with technological and cultural shifts that have made 24/7 access to nearly unlimited information the norm, constituents want more data and they want it faster. Leaders want to make data-driven decisions about everything from compensation to space usage.

Four additional sessions covered the use of key data points and metrics in higher education; using SAS to get more for less; engaging faculty in using data as the basis for discussing how to improve student success; and the history of the UT System Productivity Dashboard.

The symposium was attended by representatives from UT campuses across the state, as well as policy analysts from legislators’ offices and think tanks, such as The Education Trust in Washington D.C.

Interesting statements arose during the presentations:

“There is a hunger for data, rather than information. Individuals don’t want us to apply the definitions; they want to do their own digging.” – The University of Texas at Austin

“The more data people get, the more they want. So we want to keep up with the demands.” – Sul Ross State University

“It is critical to understand the data system as it is now; especially if we want to change it.” – The University of Texas at El Paso

“Data governance is a challenge. Now that we have millions of records on students, who gets to see the data?” – University of North Texas

“Getting people to trust the data is a challenge. Once we prove the data is correct, we can change a person’s mindset, get them to trust it, and then get them to use it.” – Sul Ross State University

“Data is a place to start; it’s not the end.” – Austin Community College

In the following Q & A, Stephanie Hui, Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor of strategic initiatives, briefly discusses the history of the UT System Productivity Dashboard; the needs that it serves; the technology behind the implementation; and where the UT System is headed as it grows its datasets, users, and research and policy analysis. Huie will become the interim vice chancellor for strategic initiatives in January when Sandra Woodley, D.B.A., vice chancellor of strategic initiatives takes her new post as president of the University of Louisiana System. 

Q: What led to the development of the UT System Productivity Dashboard? Would you briefly discuss its history?

A:  The University of Texas System has long worked to be at the forefront of higher education in terms of transparency and accountability.  From the annual “Accountability and Performance Report” to the detailed “Facts & Trends” statistical handbook, the UT System has long been publishing detailed data on institutional performance across critical mission areas. 

During spring 2011, the System leadership came together around Chancellor Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence.”  Built on four core values—opportunity, economic impact, quality of life and stewardship—the framework’s nine-part action plan included an investment in strategic information technology infrastructure. 

This prioritized the creation of an interactive data warehouse that would support the management of the UT System and its institutions—the Productivity Dashboard.  Ultimately, the Dashboard will support the Framework by providing an accessible, customizable tool for monitoring institutional performance and progress towards goals related to the nine areas in the action plan. With an investment from the Board of Regents and a clear call to action from the chancellor, our office was able to move forward on finding a BI solution.

Q: What needs does the Dashboard serve?

A: As we evaluated different tools available to create a dashboard, we were looking at four primary uses:

 One use was to meet the call for increased transparency.  There are many organizations that use dashboards and information portals.  What would differentiate the UT System Productivity Dashboard would be its open access. The portal and the data would not require a login.

Another use was as a management tool.  Executives need a tool that will provide data that can be easily understood and evaluated in order to make better, data-driven policy decisions. 

A third use was to replace the current hard copy and PDF Fact Book with public, online access to the data warehouse. It would be more nimble, with measures updated as the data become available instead of a once-a-year publication schedule.

Finally, the new solution needed to allow for the streamlining and automation of the data collection process in our office.  Because we would be collecting even more data than we had previously, new tools would need to automate much of that process and reduce staff time spent on data collection.

Q: What is the technology behind the implementation?

A: Behind the Dashboard is the full complement of SAS Business Intelligence Applications.  In addition, we plan to unveil another SAS application, Visual Analytics, during the first part of 2013 that will allow users to display data and reports on an iPad.

Q: Where is the Dashboard headed as it continues to grow?

A: We are currently working to build college profiles. These profiles will display data that is available by college. For example, you might look at enrollment or faculty research figures for Engineering or Liberal Arts. All of these areas will be public access. 

We are also going to include more data on student outcomes - particularly focusing on post- graduate employment and returns to educational investment.  In addition, we plan to include more data on performance goals and expand benchmarking and peer-comparison data.

Another important growth area for the Dashboard is the build out of data and indicators for the UT System health-related institutions. 

New partnerships with Academic Analytics and Sci Val will also allow us to take a more in-depth and comprehensive look at faculty productivity with a particular focus on publications, citations, research collaborations, and research dollars. 


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