What Analytics Aren’t

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Analytics aren’t a cure-all.  They don’t solve your problems for you.  There isn’t an instruction manual on how to properly use data.  Stop.  End of sentence.

While you let that sink in, let’s tangent into a fun piece of trivia.  There was a TV show in the early ’80’s called ‘The Greatest American Hero‘, and its premise was about the lack of an instruction manual.  The main character gets a super power suit from aliens, but he loses the instructions.  Hijinks ensue as he tries to figure out his powers on the fly.  Anyway, the protagonist was a teacher named Ralph Hinckley.  Unfortunately for the show runners, halfway through the first season, John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, so they immediately changed the TV character’s name to Ralph Hanley.  I was a fan of the show as a kid and I just stayed the the Washington Hilton last week (site of the shooting), so all of those neurons fired at the same time in my brain.  But I digress.

So why do I start off this blog post with a big wet blanket of reality about analytics?  It’s because in my new role as the VP of Analytics for Blackboard, I’m forced to do a much better job of communicating the benefits of analytics to those around me.  When you’re running a small company, you can be the product manager, sales director, and head of marketing.  When you have an organization and processes that you rely on for scale, you can’t.

This past week, I spoke to a number people on our sales teams about our analytics plans and offerings.  The crux of my conversations was to be crystal clear about what analytics ARE and what analytics AREN’T.  Those very qualified sales folks will be the ones engaging with clients and potential customers, and I need to make sure our messaging is clear.  That’s why I started off with what analytics aren’t.  They’re not magic, they don’t easily solve your problems, and there is rarely a step-by-step process towards success.  I’ve always said that analytics complement the human decision-making process — they don’t replace it.  That’s one of the best one-liners I’ve come up with when I talk about analytics.

So, if we started with what analytics AREN’T, what ARE they?  I’ll give two bullet points on that:

  • Analytics provide data that inform people (teachers, advisors…), provide insights that might not be obvious, and can help guide the actions we take
  • Analytics can also help teachers and advisors 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 the sales team at the Washington Hilton, there were two other items this week that inspired this post.  First, there was this NYT opinion piece called ‘How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers‘.  It espouses my top personal philosophy — balance.  Data, analytics, and measurement are a good thing, 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 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 by themselves won’t solve it for you.

By the way, I’ll be at the Blackboard Institutional Performance Conference in Austin, TX next week (February 4-5…agenda is here).  If you plan on attending and would like to continue this conversation, please don’t hesitate to connect.

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