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Academic analytics make the grade for education CIO

Ed Meachen wants his university system to be at the head of the class. By creating a business case to acquire a repository of academic analytics, he's positioned his team at the University of Wisconsin System to help improve student retention and course engagement.

In this Q&A, filmed at the Fusion 2012 CEO-CIO Symposium in Madison, Wis., SearchCIO Features Writer Karen Goulart sits down with Meachen, the university system's associate vice president for learning and IT, to discuss his approach to justifying and gathering academic analytics.

Meachen explains that the university previously spent money on recruitment, not retention -- a mistake that many institutions of higher education make, he says. To counter this trend and better track student engagement, he implemented learning management software that provides students and faculty with easy access to learning materials and social interaction within academic courses.

Read a partial transcript from this interview below, and watch the video Q&A from the symposium for more on academic analytics for education CIOs and heads of IT.

Can you talk about what the benefits of this project will be?

Ed Meachen: Yes. One of the primary problems that higher education faces is that we spend a lot of money to recruit students. We spend a lot of money to keep students in school and make sure that they have a very good education -- and we don't retain students all that well at many of our institutions.

Around the country, the average retention is actually about 55% over six years, and many students don't graduate in that six-year period. So, what we wanted to do was see if we could use technology, with our learning management system, to improve those retention rates by finding out more about what makes a student not persist through a particular class. We did a lot of research on that, and we think we have a project that will help us demonstrate whether that research is actually valid in the University of Wisconsin.

What technology do you believe is driving the most innovation at the university?

Meachen: Well, I think the technology that's driving this particular innovation is one we have been using since about 2001: That's learning management software. It allows faculty to provide students with learning materials, a place where they can do social interaction in their courses, in an online environment. So, many faculty -- in fact, about 80% of our faculty -- now use learning management systems out on the Web.

We have one major learning management system that they use. One of the problems, though, is that while we find them very useful for providing those learning environments, learning opportunities and grading, we have no way to get data out of those systems -- data that demonstrates how long students persist in reading assignments or whether they actually engage with other students online. It's very difficult to get that.

So, we have contracted with a learning management company to work with us on getting that data out of the system into an analytics data warehouse that we can then use with other data to begin analyzing student's engagement in the course. We believe that student engagement early on in the semester is absolutely critical for success in a particular course, and we're looking especially at what we call "gateway courses": Math 101, English 101. If a student fails Math 101 and has to retake it, their chances of actually succeeding in college go down by over 50%.

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