What Analytics Aren’t

The new VP of analytics at a leading edtech company talks data.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mike Sharkey

CREDIT Blackboard AnalyticsAnalytics aren’t a cure-all for education institutions. They don’t solve problems automatically. There isn’t an instruction manual on how to properly use data. In general, “analytics” is the process by which we turn raw data into valuable information. Analytics is a tool for problem solving. In most cases, regardless of its application, it requires human intervention. Additionally, analytics software isn’t magical. There’s no alchemy where we create substantive information from vapor. If a class is taught face-to-face with physical textbooks and papers submitted via email to the instructor, it is difficult to derive an accurate model around classroom engagement.

In education, analytics can help you break down the problem and look at all of the pieces, but we need to rely on faculty, advisors, dedicated administrators, or the students themselves to take action and make a difference.

So why do I start off this column with a big wet blanket of reality about analytics? It’s because I want to be very clear about the capabilities of analytics. In my new role as the vice president of Analytics for Blackboard, I talk to lots of folks about data. I communicate the benefits (and realities) of analytics to my colleagues and our customers and partners around the globe. I’m constantly making sure that the message about analytics is clear so that it doesn’t get mangled in the telephone game of life.

Recently, I spoke with a number of people on our team who work with clients about our analytics offerings. The crux of my conversations was to be crystal clear about what analytics are and what analytics aren’t. Those very qualified folks will be the ones engaging with clients, and I need to make sure everyone is on the same page. That’s why I start off with what analytics aren’t. Successful analytic initiatives typically involve a systematic, step-by-step progression toward a goal. Every customer engagement I have worked on in my 25-year career (14 in higher education) has been unique and was treated as such. I’ve always said that analytics complement the human decision-making process — they don’t replace it. That means we have to account for human variance. We can’t rely on the methodical consistency of software.

So, if we started with what analytics aren’t, what are they? I’ll give two bullet points on that:

  • Analytics allow us to understand data. That understanding can inform people (teachers, advisors, administrators), provide insights that might not be obvious, and can help guide the actions we take.
  • Analytics can also help teachers, advisors and administrators act more efficiently by surfacing information that might otherwise take time to extract (think about counting posts in a discussion forum).

I can probably slice these into a few more points, but let’s stop there for now. As an instructor, analytics arm me with information that I can use to make better decisions, and they can also offload administrative tasks so that I can spend my time on the important things (like teaching and giving feedback).

In addition to my sessions with our client-facing team, there were two other items recently that inspired this column. First, there was a New York Times’ opinion piece called ‘How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers‘. The piece espouses my top personal philosophy — achieving balance. Data, analytics, and measurement are good things, but we can’t go overboard. A dearth of standardized testing and ratings systems is a stark symptom of an over-reliance on data. The second item is Phil Hill’s ‘It’s Called Data Analysis And Not Data Synthesis For A Reason‘ post on e-literate. Phil uses a TED talk from a computational geneticist named Sebastian Wernicke. The key takeaway from the talk, in my mind, is summed up in this quote:

“Data and data analysis, no matter how powerful, can only help you taking a problem apart and understanding its pieces. It’s not suited to put those pieces back together again and then to come to a conclusion.”

Again — it’s a great idea to focus on what analytics aren’t. In education, analytics can help you break down the problem and look at all of the pieces, but we need to rely on faculty, advisors, dedicated administrators, or the students themselves to take action and make a difference. Remember that the next time you have a conversation about analytics in K-12 or higher education. Think about the problem you’re trying to solve. Believe it or not, that problem isn’t “analytics”. It’s more likely a higher-level issue such as retention or effective teaching, and analytics can help you solve it.

Mike Sharkey, VP of Analytics at Blackboard, is responsible for their suite of analytics products, including predictive, learning and warehousing analytics tools used by higher education institutions to help retain students, improve the teaching and learning process, and answer insightful questions about students, courses and programs. 

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