Why Big Data is a Big Deal for Higher Education

Data isn’t sexy. Placed next to Instagram, Pinterest, or the latest social media property, a table of raw data just isn’t going to garner much notice. But just because data isn’t shiny doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve our attention – and in fact I think it’s been left out of far too many conversations lately.

Why Big Data is Awesome

If the internet is the engine of our digital world, data is the fuel that powers it. We wouldn’t have any of those cool social media tools without massive amounts of data flowing quickly and efficiently around the globe. These massive amounts of data continue to accumulate at such an exponential rate that we’ve now coined the term ‘Big Data’ to describe the innovations surrounding the possible uses of this unprecedented amount of information.

Big data, combined with other recent technologies such as cloud computing, is already leading to remarkably transformative changes in all types of industries:

  • GE’s Industrial Internet - or as they describe it, “The convergence of machine and intelligent data,” is changing the way that manufacturing industries work.
  • The Hubble Deep Field project is using big data to map parts of the universe we’ve never seen before and changing astronomy in the process.
  • In only 10 years, The Human Genome Project has used big data to reduce the amount of time it takes to map a human genome from 13 years to three days.
  • The Obama Campaign used big data to get President Obama elected, twice.
  • The Oakland Athletics used their ‘Moneyball’ big data approach, turning conventional baseball statistics on their head and forever changing the professional sports industry.

Big data is having an impact on many industries, and higher education is no exception…

Why Big Data is Awesome for Higher Education

Why is data important to people working in higher education? Among other things, big data:

  • Allows you to utilize Facebook as a killer marketing platform for free – because Facebook advertisers are willing to pay for ultra-targeted advertisements based on user behavior.
  • Forces alumni and career services offices to increasingly rely on LinkedIn’s mammoth career and employment data stores to make connections for job-seekers.
  • Causes your conference hashtag to trend on Twitter.
  • Allows us, through predictive modeling, to become more and more adept at solving problems with student recruitment, retention, and job placement before they start.
  • Provides a big source of analytical data (Google Analytics) to many websites, allowing us to make strategic decisions about how to improve our sites over time.

Why Big Data is Awesome for Higher Education Websites

But what about websites in particular? Let’s take a minute to imagine what the typical college website contains — and then dream about what is possible with a website connected to and leveraging big data.

Without big data, we have static images and infographics to highlight statistics. With big data we can allow users to interact directly with our data through a tool such as Google Charts.

Without big data, we can embed Google Maps of our campus in our site. With big data, we can allow our users to dive deep into demographics – for example, using tools such as Polymaps to show alumni population density in real time.

Without big data, you can have a cool geolocation-based orientation game for tours. With big data, you could provide visitors an augmented reality campus tour using Google Glass.

With your default google analytics data you can generate useful reports, but imagine what is possible when you start to leverage big data practices to produce multi-channel conversion funnels.

Without big data, your alumni database is an island. With new tools such as EverTrue, you can begin connecting your system to the big data powering LinkedIn.

Without big data, you can showcase campaign progress through traditional profiles and videos. With crowd-funding tools powered by big data, such as Kickstarter, you can highlight progress in real-time.

 

Why Big Data will be Hard for Higher Education

What are the challenges standing in between today’s reality and tomorrow’s utopia?

1. Lack of good data: You can’t have big data if you don’t have good data. Good data involves:

    • Data normalization – making sure there’s one authoritative source for data.
    • Data standards – making sure there are clear rules and policies around data structure and use.

2. Shortage of good talent: You can’t have big data if you don’t know what to do with it. This will require:

    • New skills will be required to interpret and take action on all this data.
    • Resources to clean up and improve existing data.

3. Lack of infrastructure: You can’t have big data if your systems don’t work with it. We need:

    • Software systems that elegantly transform data into usable, actionable reports and user interfaces.
    • Interfaces built to extract data from the myriad sources where it resides.
    • Relational, instead of flat, databases.

4. Lack of awareness: You can’t have big data if you don’t know why it’s worth having.

    • People need to be aware of the potential. Share this article with your coworkers!
    • Campus leaders need to know where to go to get information and examples

The challenge and opportunity for all higher education sites is to utilize big data to its fullest potential. Even the most beautiful, intuitive, and compelling sites stand to benefit from big data innovations in the years to come.

I’m not done with data.

I want to take a deeper dive into some of the amazing things we’ll be able to do with our websites thanks to big data, so stay tuned for more on this topic and its many permutations, including:

  • Data Visualization
  • Crowdfunding
  • Predictive Analysis
  • Augmented Reality
  • Web Analytics

About This Article
Fran Zablocki
mStoner