Photo Chris Gill, Chief Information Technology Officer at Drake University

Digitally Enabling Drake University to Improve Student Success


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Aug 30, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Chris Gill is a seasoned chief information technology officer, with 24 years of progressively greater responsibility in information technology leadership within higher education. Working at Drake University for the past three years, Gill presented his work with Drake’s Business Intelligence portal at Bb World 2018, which took place in Orlando (Fla.)  in July, and also took some time to talk to Blackboard about today’s challenges in higher education, as well as his thoughts on the future of learning analytics. According to Gill, serving a new generation of learners who are digital at all times is the first challenge universities must address right now.

A midsized, private university in Des Moines, Iowa, Drake University offers the benefits and resources of a larger institution, along with the advantages of intimate class sizes and close personal relationships. Drake enrolls more than 3,000 undergraduates and 1,800 graduate students from 45 states in the U.S. and  over 42 countries. Students can choose from more than 70 majors, minors and concentrations and 20 graduate degrees offered through six schools and colleges. In addition, Drake’s offerings include a range of continuing education programs serving working professionals, community members, and businesses in the area. In order to process all that information and bring students the best educational experience, Drake University is constantly improving its learning analytics initiatives.

  • We wanted to start by asking you about your Business Intelligence portal powered by Blackboard Intelligence. Who is the portal for? How does it support academic decision-making? What goals do you expect to achieve with it?

Higher education institutions have a great deal of data and a great number of reports. The reality, at least at the institutions that I have worked at, is that most of that work is done in a way that requires someone to request information – a report, for example – and then have someone else develop and deliver that report to the requester. So, there is a delay. You ask for information, someone creates it, you get that report delivered to you, and so on.

One of the things that I learned is to make information available via self-service, so that people do not have to wait on someone else. The portal, for me, is sort of the home of analytics. It is where we are trying to train our users to go and access analytical information that is of interest and concern to them, without the need to go through a second or a third party to get that information and without the need for a delay.

The other important part is that Blackboard Intelligence is not the only source of analytical or operational reporting information on any campus. There are reports that come out of the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), there are reports that are generated in Excel format, there are third party data sources; there is a whole potential for a variety of analytics tools that might be made available through a self-service interface, like a portal. And we needed a portal platform that would accommodate any type of business intelligence information that we wanted to present.

We chose to use SharePoint, because it is pretty ‘agnostic.’ You can use an iFrame to present information, or a PDF format file, or Excel services to present spreadsheet information – it will accommodate all of that. Plus, SharePoint has the ability to web-enable access to all of that content. Anytime, anywhere, that information is now available to you.

  • Is the portal for faculty only?

We have the content structured for multiple audiences, but it is structured around content themes, and not user populations. In other words, we do not have a set of reports for faculty and another set for deans and department chairs. We are trying to structure information in a way that is agile enough to form around the needs of the individual user populations.

Right now, our provost is a relatively heavy user of the portal, our deans are using it, our department chairs are using it as well. Certainly, our Admissions Office is a heavy consumer and user of the content that we are making available. We are also in the midst of launching some new analytics tools for budget managers. This way, budget managers across the university can better track and manage spending out of departmental budgets. And that is just the beginning, I mean, it can go in a whole variety of other directions.

  • When did you launch the portal?

We launched it about two years ago. You know, one of the things that I will emphasize is the importance of starting small and creating wins. Do not start big, do not make promises that you cannot keep. Start small and get some wins, and then let interactions with user communities drive the priorities. We did launch it, but we launched it pretty quietly for very specific audiences at first: our deans and the provost.

  • More than mere tolerance, Drake University is known for its culture of inclusion. How would you say analytics can help institutions become more inclusive and deal with diversity in the most effective way? Do you use analytics when dealing with inclusion matters as well?

That is a great question. I think that analytics has a role to play, but it cannot be the primary driver of improvements to the institution’s inclusiveness and diversity. Doing the hard work of diversifying a campus both in terms of perspective, ethnicity, race, gender spectrum, gender in general, requires a great deal of intentionality. The institution as a whole has to be uniformly committed to that goal. And, it is also a never-ending goal. I would suggest that the methodology that Drake University is using for driving its strategic priorities, which is continuous improvement planning using balanced scorecard methodology, is actually, in many ways, much more important to ensuring continued progress on campus diversification than analytics. But the two are inextricably connected to each other.

You cannot improve what you do not measure. We need to be able to pick performance measures that are going to mean something as we make progress on those performance measures. And in some way, they must be quantitative. We must be able to measure them in an effective way. They can be based on qualitative assessment, but, at some point in time, they have to be reflected in some way so they can demonstrate improvement. That is the role that analytics plays.

At Drake, we have defined what measures we are going to use to tell us whether our campus is making progress on inclusion and diversity. Then, we set up the structures and the process to measure those aspects in a way that is available to the university.

Diversity and inclusion are directly reflected in our continuous improvement plan with measures that are quantitative. We are already working on the initiatives that will be used to move the needle and we’re using our scorecard to measure our progress. Blackboard Intelligence is not playing a large role in that yet, but our data warehouse and our Business Intelligence portal will absolutely play a role in this as we go forward because it is going to play a role in Drake’s overall improvement plan.

  • To conclude, what you think the future holds for higher education institutions and how will analytics be a part of the way these institutions are run over next 10 years?

This is a big question. One of the data elements that I reference regularly when I think about the future of how analytics and decision support are going to impact higher education into the future comes from McKinsey & Company. They are saying that by 2030, as much as 50% of all the work (not jobs) that human beings do on this planet today has the potential to be replaced by robotics, artificial intelligence and automation.

They are also estimating that, by the same year, as much as 30% of the global workforce will be displaced by robotics, automation and artificial intelligence. Those forces are going to impact employment and the workforce in ways that are, in my opinion, just as transformative as the industrial revolution was in the 1800s. My focus right now is on how can I help my university become digitally enabled. How can I empower us to operate in a digital-first world? A world that is going to be heavily impacted by artificial intelligence and automation in the next 15 to 20 years.

From my perspective, digitally enabling and centering the university around student success and student transformation is the most important job of the CIO today. It is big and overwhelming, but we must be able to move in this direction. The forces acting on us are just too universal and too transformative for us not to be preparing our universities to navigate this change.

Moreover, higher education is more important, more essential than it ever has been. We have to figure out how to serve the lifelong learning population in a new way. I believe that for many of us, the bread and butter of undergraduate residential learners is not going away, but I think we must look beyond that to a digitally enabled world that is information-rich and automation-rich that is changing the nature of work, and that we need to be prepared to help transition to new roles in supporting the digitally-enabled workplace.

That is a big issue. What do we do about that? We need to be digitally enabling every business process in the university. We need to be putting the digital interface between students and the university first. I am not talking about changing the fundamental nature of teaching and learning; my job as CIO is to digitally enable the university to support that transformative educational experience that happens every day on our campus – the relationship between students and faculty – to occur anytime, anywhere, and on demand.

I am not suggesting in any way that that changes the relationship between students and faculty, or that it changes the teaching and learning process. It is simply an addition, an enhancement and capacity enabler alongside what faculty and students do. It is also an acknowledgement of the way that the new generation of learners interact. The reality is that they are digital. And they are digital all the time. So, that is where we must be as well. I perceive my job as working to digitally enable Drake University to support the transformation that is coming.

Measurable Impacts of Analytics Use at Drake University 

Drake University has an Academic Decision Support Tool. Its main goal is to empower deans, department chairs and the provost to make more effective resource allocation decisions across the university. See some of the areas the tool has impacted the most so far.

New Faculty Positions

The tool has changed the way Drake’s academic units request either new or replacement faculty positions. The provost is now requiring or evaluating those requests in the context of enrollment and course utilization trends within the department.

Student Success

The DFW report is enabling the university to look for ways to improve student success and student outcomes, prompting questions about courses or programs with high DFW rates, and asking those units to look at the reasons and solutions help students be successful in those programs. “In the early stages, we have already identified several areas where we can support those units in better evaluating their course guidelines and their student support practices to empower students to be more successful in those programs,” Gill explains.


Drake is changing the way they deal with budgets. The reports that are being developed are empowering budget managers to project and forecast their remaining budget throughout the fiscal cycle more effectively.


Analysis of yield over time by a three-digit zip code has been put together, helping the Admissions Office evaluate with more detail where the university is gaining and losing admits and enrollees. The initiative is also enabling Drake to better target the resources that the university is putting into various territories, in order to ensure they are yielding as much as possible.


There is a very close correlation between first semester or first year GPA (Grade Point Average) and retention into the second year. Students with low GPAs do not retain, and students with high GPA retain at much higher rates. In the middle, there is a significant leverage or balance point, where if students achieve above a certain GPA in their first semester, they are significantly more likely to retain. That is enabling Drake to begin to look at how the university is supporting students in their course load so they can succeed.

GPA Shock

Drake has discovered that it is not just about students’ first year GPA, it is also about the variability between their average high school GPA and their first semester of college GPA. If they were a B or C student in high school and they get B or C grades in college, they are much more likely to retain. However, if they were an A student in high school and they are getting Cs in college, that GPA shock is significantly likely to impact their retention. “Right now, we are looking at how we can better watch for GPA shock, as it can be an early warning indicator for us that we may have to intervene with students,” says Gill.

Photos by: AFP – Scott A. Miller