Overcoming Early Analytics Challenges At UMBC


In 2011, Long and Siemens famously announced that big data and analytics represented “the most dramatic factor shaping the future of higher education.” Now, five years later, conversations about the use of data and analytics in higher education are more mixed. In 2016, the Campus Computing Project release an annual report that used the language of “analytics angst.” In a recent blog series for the EDUCAUSE Review, Mike Sharkey and I argue that analytics has fallen into a “trough of disillusionment.” What makes some institutions successful in their analytics where others flounder? How can we work to scale, not technologies, but high impact practices? Let’s examine one example.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) began working with Blackboard Analytics in 2006. At that time, they simply wanted to support access to basic information to ensure that the institution was effective and efficient in its operations. Shortly after gaining access to their institutional data, however, they quickly began asking deeper questions about student success.

Since 2006, UMBC has become a recognized leader in the use of educational data and analytics in support of institutional performance, instructional excellence, and student success. In 2017, US News and World Reports ranked UMBC the 5th most innovative school in the nation, and 18th in terms of undergraduate teaching.

The success that UMBC has seen in recent years did not happen overnight. The university had to overcome early challenges that many institutions still face today, namely adoption and scale. How do you work with the right stakeholders to create a shared vision? Once you have the necessary support from institutional leaders, how do you meet their information needs while managing expectations?

According to Jack Suess, CIO at UMBC, the adoption of Blackboard Analytics tools at UMBC was fostered in two ways.

#1. Demonstrate Value

At UMBC, the native reporting capabilities out of the student management system were very weak. What this meant was that many information needs could only be met through ad hoc requests to IT. This process was inefficient, burdensome, and time consuming. By demonstrating that the information needs of stakeholders could be met quickly, easily, and independently using Blackboard Intelligence, users felt empowered and were eager to adopt the new technology.

#2. Focus on Training

When UMBC eventually switched to a new SIS, they made the decision to stop writing reports for functional offices. Instead, they focused their efforts on training those offices to create and customize reports for themselves using Blackboard Intelligence. In doing so, staff were empowered to become more than just consumers of data. Some, of course, worried that they were not “technical” enough to do this kind of work. But IT staff at UMBC converted even the most reluctant users by working closely with staff and cultivating a growth mindset. Beyond initial training, the Office of Information Technology also hosts a bi-weekly community lunch. During that time, anyone from the University can come to ask questions and seek help in solving their toughest challenges.

What general advice does Jack Suess give to other campuses, based on his experience with Blackboard Analytics and from his 36 years as head of IT at UMBC? See what he says in this video interview:

In summary, Jack Suess stresses these two points:

#3. Don’t Focus on the Tool

More ‘wiz-bang’ features are not always better. “Sometimes these powerful features are necessary. More often than not, they get in the way,” said Suess. The goal should not be on finding the “best” tool. It should be about making the right capabilities available to end users.

#4. Develop Partnerships From Across the Institution

“IT alone is not going to drive the kind of student success initiatives that are necessary to really see the value of implementing Blackboard Intelligence,” Suess said. “You need to have a tight partnership with your enrollment management group. You need to have your Provost office and deans behind this. You need institutional research to at least be supportive of this kind of effort.” A successful analytics effort begins and ends with having all the right people at the table to create and get behind a shared vision.

Watch more of Jack and his discussion of the student success initiatives at UMBC.

For the latest product news and community updates, subscribe to the Blackboard Analytics Newsletter