The nostalgic 80’s kid in me reads the title of this blog in my best Sting accent….”I want my D-A-T-A”…and then I jump into a frenetic mix of air drums, air keyboards and air guitar riffs. But this isn’t a documentary of how I spent my formative years. It’s about data. And the title actually refers to a much more relevant vignette. When I first started working in higher ed, it was with the University of Phoenix in 2002. My first role was the product manager for our e-book initiative. We were converting the entire university from physically fulfilled textbooks to PDF e-books (complete with DRM!). Once we moved to e-books, we had the desire to do more innovative things with the publisher’s material. A team of us were talking with the publisher reps about things we wanted to do like disaggregating and repurposing content. The publishers kept talking about “selling chapters” and “selling books.” Our provost then uttered a great line that I still use to this day. He said, “we don’t want your books…we want your content.” Thanks, Craig.

It occurred to me that in my role with data and analytics at Blackboard, a customer might use a similar line on me. We don’t just want your software, we want our data! We know what we want to do with it. We don’t want it locked up or packaged in any way. We just need access.

I love talking to folks at institutions who think this way. Michael Feldstein recently wrote a great piece about learning sciences research and the relationship between institutions and vendors. In my mind, the kinds of researchers saying they just want their data represent the teams and institutions who will help to move the state of the art forward. Here are some use cases that come to mind when I think of colleagues who have asked and gotten access to their data:

  • Create models to determine if a student is exhibiting symptoms of risk
  • Create dashboards for coaches that can illustrate their students’ activity and performance data
  • Trigger message events immediately and directly to students

In the same way that API’s helped to usher in the Web 2.0 era by opening up the data and services associated with apps, I believe that access to data in higher ed will usher in an age of student and institutional-driven use cases like we haven’t seen before. This isn’t a new concept. Some people have shared the idea of the LMS as an operating system over a decade ago or, more recently, the NGDLE (sweet acronym!). So how does Blackboard respond to this burgeoning need? Our goal is to make data available to our Blackboard Learn customers in the ways that make sense for them. Whether that’s access to raw data or something more refined, we want to have a solution in place. Here’s a framework I use to describe the different levels of data access that an institution might want from their LMS:



Notice the progression from raw to refined. I think this really depends on the capacity and capabilities of the institution. If you’re at an institution and want to access information from your LMS, where would you land on this continuum? While I think frameworks are a great taxonomy, they don’t always function well as a mnemonic. I’m a big fan of using analogies to compartmentalize ideas in my brain, so let me use this as a way to think about one’s desired level of refinement for LMS data:



I think this analogy holds water. I especially like the last one. I really don’t care about having a vehicle— my ultimate goal is to get from point A to point B, not to own a car (although I’m still stinging a little from the Uber 1.8x surge pricing I just got hit with in DC).

Finally, I wanted to map these levels to the product offerings we have at Blackboard:



Each one fills our customers’ needs as they align to the different levels of refinement. The offerings are:

  • Activity Stream – a Caliper compliant set of events representing specific actions taken by users in the LMS (e.g. Mike clicked the Chapter 2 eBook link in HIS/105 at 4/21/16 10:05:02)
  • Open DB – Snapshot copies of Learn tables
  • Intelligence – Our flagship data warehouse offerings for Blackboard Learn, SIS, and other administrative modules
  • X-Ray – A Moodle tool that gives faculty deep visibility into student activity and engagement in the class
  • Predict – Custom predictive model and dashboards that give timely and accurate information about student risk

So what can a reader do with this information? My hope is that if you are at a higher ed institution and you are talking with software vendors about getting access to data (YOUR data!), make sure you keep these levels of access in mind. The more you can articulate your needs and use cases, the better the relationship with the vendor. And if the vendor questions your need for the data…the data that belong to the institution and should not be divested to another party…then send them this link to let them know how you feel about your data.

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  • Chris Munzo

    Wouldn’t an open API be more in line with the spirit of “we don’t want your books, we want your content”?

    • Mike Sharkey

      Hey Chris…good to hear from you again! Yes…API access is very much aligned with that and we’ve introduced that layer of access to our Learn SaaS offering. More of our customers will have access to the Activity Stream, so I wanted to highlight that option. I hope all is well with you and the Dropout Detective offering.


  • Chris Munzo

    Wouldn’t an open API be more in line with the spirit of “we don’t want your books, we want your content”?