College officials are analyzing a range of data to help their campuses adapt to the pandemic.
Schools are deploying apps that show where people are coming and going to track the spread of the virus. And officials are examining how students fared with online learning during the spring term to determine how to improve instruction going forward.
These newer applications for data and analytics on campus come amid a broader push to better quantify student performance. Before the pandemic hit, colleges were using analytics to spot students who were struggling and guide them to institutional resources. Such initiatives could also show where instructional efforts were falling short.
As colleges and universities approach the looming demographic cliff in undergraduate enrollment weakened by the effects of the pandemic, these tools and processes will be all the more important to student retention and success.
You can learn more about new and ongoing trends in analytics in the stories below.
Report shows colleges using spring data for decision-making
Educause officials hope the increased interest will make use of student success information standard.
By: Hallie Busta
The coronavirus pandemic triggered the swift closure of campuses nationwide this spring as institutions shifted to remote instruction. As that was underway, experts predicted schools would need to review the transition after the fact to better understand their online education needs.
A new report from ed-tech industry group Educause offers an early look at how college officials plan to use data gathered during the spring term to inform decision-making on their campuses around student success.
The report is based on a May poll of officials at 142 institutions, just under half of whom were from doctoral institutions.
Around two-thirds of respondents said demand for student-success analytics increased, particularly around technology usage. Officials' primary goal for that information is to inform interventions, the survey found. Data on engagement with the learning management system and student enrollment was also of interest.
More than half of respondents said assessing students' activity in online courses was the most relevant student success metric.
But the data's usefulness varies. Around a quarter of respondents said they had enough data to significantly inform their planning, while nearly double that share said the data would be "somewhat" useful.
Quality was also a concern in the quick move to online instruction this spring. Eight in 10 respondents to Educause's poll saw a "moderate to large" increase in demand for course design data, which the group says indicates "a concerted effort to address course design issues and enhance quality."
Other surveys conducted this spring found varying views of online instruction. In one small poll of 73 instructors, just 22% said they thought "very or extremely highly" of online instruction based on their experience with it so far. And students have mentioned the quality of remote classes in lawsuits for tuition refunds.
The Educause poll also unearthed privacy concerns around an uptick in inquiries for student and faculty activity data. However, less than a quarter of those surveyed included "ethical use" of data among their top three priorities. Respondents cited the combination of chief academic officers, provosts and deans, followed by information technology officials and then student success professionals, as the primary stakeholders for using student success data on campus.
Still, Educause officials are optimistic about the increased interest in data and analytics this year, writing in their report on the results that they hope it will "set a standard" for decision-making going forward.
Article top image credit: ijeab/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
Colleges look to apps that screen for virus symptoms and trace contacts
But privacy concerns are causing some schools to reconsider their options for tracking and preventing the spread of the coronavirus on campus.
By: Natalie Schwartz
This summer, representatives from the University of Alabama at Birminghamcalled for 20,000 participants to test a new mobile app that its researchers helped develop. It will alert them if they've recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
State government and university officials hope Alabama residents will eventually use the app to curb the spread of the virus.
Based on tools built by Apple and Google, the GuideSafe exposure notification appdetermines the proximity of two people by assessing the signal strength between their smartphones. If a user indicates they've contracted the virus, it sends alerts about potential exposure to anyone who has been within six feet of them for at least 15 minutes over the past two weeks.
Sue Feldman, a health professor at the Birmingham campus, billed the app during a press conference about the state's higher education reopening strategy as "one of the tools" it can use to fight the coronavirus. The app, as well as other parts of its reentry plan, was paid for with relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
U of Alabama, which is offering a mix of virtual and in-person instruction this fall, hopes the combination of the GuideSafe app and testing up to 12,000 students for the virus each day will ensure campuses can reopen safely. Use of the contact-tracing app is voluntary, but all students and employees coming onto campus or living there will be required to complete a symptoms questionnaire at regular intervals.
The university is one of several higher education institutions using mobile apps to aid contact tracing, a process that's key to stopping the spread of infectious diseases. By identifying students and employees who've contracted the virus and those with whom they've come into contact, colleges can stop chains of transmission.
Usually this process requires trained personnel to interview people who have tested positive for the virus about the locations they've visited and who they've been around. But several companies and colleges were pitching contact-tracing apps and other technologies to help ease these efforts and reopen campuses this fall.
However, some experts caution that these tools can risk student privacy, aren't accessible to people without smartphones and could undermine manual contact-tracing efforts. Albert Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, contended that unproven apps can also falsely convince campus officials that they are "comprehensively and cheaply" tracking the spread of the virus.
"The problem is these technologies simply aren't capable of that sort of tracking," Cahn said. "And if they were, they would raise a whole host of civil rights and privacy concerns."
Guarding student privacy
The best contact-tracing apps voluntarily and securely store data, according to a guide from education consultancy EAB. It also recommends colleges employ apps that use Bluetooth, rather than GPS, because it doesn't track location data.
College officials tend to trust tools and apps developed by Google and Apple to protect student and employee privacy, said Nalika Vasudevan, EAB's senior director of research. And U of Alabama officials touted the new app's protections during its rollout. But in many cases, privacy has taken a back seat as companies have rushed to launch similar tools.
Two researchers from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign reviewed 50 coronavirus-related apps, about a third of which were devoted to contact tracing.Only 16 of all the apps studied indicated user data would be encrypted and made anonymous, they found.
At the University of California, Irvine, a team of researchers is hoping to put those concerns to rest by developing a web-based app that uses data the school already collects.
Instead of requiring students and employees to turn over troves of personal information, the system works by tracking the number of devices connected to the campus Wi-Fi.To avoid overcounting people, it uses machine learning techniques to determine if two or more devices are moving together, suggesting they belong to the same person.
This can help campus officials gauge whether social distancing protocols are being followed on campus, and students and employees can check the app's dashboard to avoid areas where there is overcrowding.The college can use the tool to mark areas on campus that have been linked to coronavirus cases.
"It's inherently privacy-protecting," said Nalini Venkatasubramanian, a computer science professor at UC-Irvine working on the project. "There is really no need to know who the individual is — it's more about the space."
The app has another level of service that can aid contact-tracing efforts. If students allow the system to decrypt their data, they will receive email or text alerts if they've recently visited an area linked to a coronavirus case, the researchers explained.
It will not capture students who don't log onto the Wi-Fi, though most are connected to the network when they come onto campus, Sharad Mehrotra, a computer science professor at UC-Irvine, wrote in an email. The researchers will consider encouraging them to connect to the network if they find they aren't doing so.
"The problem is these technologies simply aren't capable of that sort of tracking. And if they were, they would raise a whole host of civil rights and privacy concerns."
Many other schools, such as the U of Alabama, are looking to the tools that Google and Apple developed, Vasudevan said. The two technology companies are working with at least 20 U.S. states and territories, representing nearly half of the country's population, to create these apps.
But it's unclear if enough people will use them to be effective. One study out of Oxford University found that around 60% of a model city's population would need to use a contact-tracing app to stop an epidemic, though lower usage could still help mitigate an outbreak.
Yet in a poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, half of those with a smartphone said they "probably" or "definitely" wouldn't use a contact-tracing app created by Apple and Google that lets people anonymously report if they tested positive for the virus as well as notify them if they have been in close proximity to someone else who has.Of the sample, 13% of cellphone users don't own a smartphone, and 4% of all respondents said they don't have a cellphone at all.
It's unclear if public sentiment about such apps has changed since the poll was conducted in April 2020. But some have been deemed failures because of their low usage rates.
In Utah, state officials announced this summer they were turning off the location-tracking feature of its contact-tracing app, called Healthy Together,after only about 200 users agreed to share their location data, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The questionnaire method
Concerns about low usage and privacy among contact-tracing apps have led some campus officials to reconsider their options. "Even though there was a lot of interest in these apps amongst higher education institutions in (the) May/early June time frame, a lot of that interest has fizzled," Vasudevan said.
Instead, more colleges are employing apps that ask users to complete a daily symptom questionnaire before they move about campus.
Ivy.ai, a company that makes chatbots for colleges, worked with Creighton University, in Nebraska, to create a free mobile app called #CampusClear.It asks users how they feel and allows colleges to greenlight them to go to campus and enter certain buildings if they don't report any symptoms of COVID-19.
Some schools will also require students to present their phones at physical checkpoints to prove they took the survey. To allow officials to check the app at a distance, Ivy.ai included a feature that will change the background to a specific color each day once students pass the questionnaire, a method akin to the rotating colors of wristbands football stadiums use for different games.
Colleges can also match the app's database of student emails to class schedules and housing assignments in order to alert students if they visited an area linked to a coronavirus case. "It will give the first warning signs before things get out of control," said Mark McNasby, Ivy.ai's CEO and co-founder.
The app encrypts user data so only select campus officials, such as school nurses, can access it. So far, more than 240 schools have signed agreements to use the app on their campuses, McNasby said.
Terra Dotta, a company that builds software to help colleges manage their study abroad programs, partnered with Yale University's medical school and the law firm White and Williams to create an app meant to help colleges reopen campuses.The app will notify students about the school's safety policies and verify they were read, and it has an option for colleges to serve students and employees a daily symptom questionnaire.
About six institutions are piloting the app. "It's going to be hard for the institutions to really be able to get a grasp on all of this without the use of the technology," said Anthony Rotoli, Terra Dotta's CEO.
The app also has GPS tracking capabilities that can aid contact-tracing efforts, though it will be up to colleges whether they want to use that feature, Rotoli said.
Ivy.ai's McNasby, however, notes the limitations of such tools, which won't stop infected students from spreading the coronavirus if they don't have symptoms to report. It's unknown how many cases are asymptomatic, but research as of this summer, some of which has not been peer-reviewed, suggests it's anywhere from around 10% to 70%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's why effective contact-tracing efforts also rely on robust testing and quick turnarounds on results. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that colleges may need to test students for the virus every two days to control campus outbreaks. The findings assume colleges use a lower-cost test that detects 70% of cases in infected people, and that they implement social distancing measures.
Yet few institutions have the resources to test as extensively as the U of Alabama, and testing turnaround times are spotty around the country. Results from tests using a nasal swab took an average of four days in the U.S. in July, but 10% of people had to wait at least 10 days for theirs, according to a national survey.
Stepping away from apps
Some schools are forgoing mobile apps in favor of other types of technology. This fall, Molloy College, a private institution in New York,is screening students and employees for fevers using temperature-taking tablets placed just inside the entrance of campus buildings.
Residential students will have to be screened by the devices twice daily, regardless of whether they're going to class.Residence life staff will follow up with anyone who doesn't have their temperature taken.
The seven-inch devices, which run about $2,000 apiece, use facial-recognition technology that's matched against the school's ID card system. If they detect that a residential student has a temperature of 100.4 F or higher, it will notify a health services staff member to meet them at the building's entry. Commuter students will be asked to leave campus and immediately contact a healthcare provider and the college's health services.
The tablets are part of Molloy's plan for bringing students back to campus this fall for in-person classes, though hybrid and online instruction will also be available. The school requires face coverings to be worn in all indoor spaces, rooms to be limited to half-capacity and anyone coming to campus to fill out a daily symptom questionnaire. A Molloy spokesperson did not say what consequences students will face if they don't comply with requirements to have their temperature screened or fill out the questionnaires but noted that a section addressing those issues is being added to the student handbook.
A risk of using facial-recognition technology, however, is that some software misidentifies people of color much more often than it does White people.
A+ Technology, which makes Molloy's kiosks, did not respond to Higher Ed Dive's email asking whether its technology has been tested for potential biases. But Janine Biscari, Molloy's vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said the company assured officials that the kiosks are "strong in capturing everybody regardless of skin color" and that the college will be testing them before the fall term starts.
Still other college leaders are choosing to keep campuses closed because they believe it may not be possible to safely reopen. A New York Times analysis linked more than 6,300 coronavirus cases and at least 14 related deaths to colleges as of late July.
But Cahn, a critic of emerging surveillance technologies, worries schools aren't thoroughly vetting technologies that purport to help them safely reopen their campuses.
"It seems like we will see many colleges taking shortcuts this fall that lead to additional student, staff and faculty death," Cahn said. "It's horrifying to put it that bluntly, but we've seen it already."
Enrollment woes could push colleges to use AI and data analytics: report
Educause's annual look at the use of new technologies in higher education shows how institutions are adopting the tools to attract and retain students.
By: Natalie Schwartz
Colleges may need to lean more on artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to curb the effects of a declining number of traditional-age students, as well as lower levels of state support, according to a report from Educause.
The 2020 Horizon Report pinpoints some of the challenges higher education leaders are facing and how emerging technology may be able to help.
AI and data analytics, among other newer technologies, are already reshaping how colleges interact with students and potential recruits, the report's authors note.
Many colleges, for instance, have rolled out automated chatbots to help answer students' questions and direct them to institutional resources.
Northwestern University, in Illinois, developed a chatbot within the learning management system that can answer common questions and search for documents related to students' inquiries.Several colleges have improved their enrollment or graduation rates by adding such technology.
Other institutions are using these tools to recruit new pools of students to make up for an expected drop-off in the number of high school graduates over the next decade.
As competition over students heats up, colleges "that skillfully navigate these demographic trends may not see significant enrollment increases," Kevin Gannon, a professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Iowa's Grand View University, wrote in an essay included in the Educause report. "[S]imply holding steady is a successful outcome," Gannon added.
Excelsior College, a private online university based in New York, is partnering with ReUp Education, an ed tech startup that uses a mix of automated messaging and human coaches to help colleges enroll students who dropped out. The company also has contracts with public university systems in Texas, Pennsylvania and New York.
Colleges are also attempting to maintain headcounts by using data analytics to boost retention and other student success measures.
The University of California, Berkeley, developed a platform that uses data on student performance to help advisers determine which students are showing signs of academic trouble.
Other institutions have similar tools for students. At the University of Iowa, students can view a dashboard that shows them the grade they're on pace to earn in a given course and suggests areas in which they can improve.
A nudge and a discount helped bring students back to college, study finds
Stopped-out students were 21% more likely to reenroll in community college if they received text message alerts and a one-course tuition waiver.
By: Natalie Schwartz
Students who dropped out of community college were 21% more likely to reenroll if they received a one-course tuition waiver and text messages with information about how to return, University of Florida researchers found in a study.
Just providing information via texts, however, did not have a major impact on whether students reenrolled.
The findings add to previous research that suggests nudges, which are digital alerts designed to influence behavior, have a limited effect on college attendance when used on their own.
The study split 27,028 former students into three groups. One received texts about the enrollment process and key deadlines, one received that information plus a tuition waiver for one course, and another was the control group.
Noting that the process of reenrolling in college could be "complex" and "challenging to navigate" for students, the researchers worked with five community colleges, all in Florida, to create custom websites intended to make it easier for students to do so.
"One thing that was really surprising to us was the fact that the information alone was not something we could claim led to reenrollment," said Justin Ortagus, one of the study's authors. But when the nudges were paired with a financial incentive, students were not only more likely to come back but also to take more than one course.
"From a financial revenue perspective, it also makes sense for the institution," Ortagus said.
The campaign worked particularly well for students who had lower GPAs or had accumulated more credits than other students in the study and those who were older than traditional-aged undergraduates, the researchers found.
The study adds topreviousfindings that suggest nudges alone may not influence college-going behavior, though personalizing them could help.
It also has implications for community colleges and four-year institutions that focus on adult learners, both of which are hoping to reenroll some of the 36 million Americans who have completed some college but don't have a degree.
This market could be especially important to community colleges, where completion rates hover around 30%, according to federal data. Boosting student outcomes by bringing back stopped-out students may also bring in more revenue for institutions in states that use performance-based funding, Ortagus said.
Colleges' reenrollment campaigns take various forms. Some colleges contract with vendors that specialize in bringing back students.
In late 2018, the Texas A&M University System partnered with ReUp Education, a startup that uses a combination of automated messaging and human coaches to reenroll stopped-out students and support them until they graduate. The company reenrolled about 300 students across the system for the following fall semester, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Other institutions have been using financial incentives to encourage students to return. In 2016, Colorado's Pueblo Community College promised to forgive students up to $1,000 in institutional debt after they reenrolled and finished one semester. As of April 2019, the effort had brought back more than 300 students and recouped roughly $350,000 in revenue.
How 11 universities are using their 'collective scale' to solve higher ed's problems
Bridget Burns, the University Innovation Alliance's executive director, explains how the group is finding common ground and what other schools can learn.
By: Hallie Busta
Higher education often gets criticized for its silos, both within institutions and among them.So when the University Innovation Alliance launched publicly in 2014, its bold ambition of getting universities to share ideas to help them improve college access was met with skepticism.
"This has been a fairly intractable space where every institution is doing really interesting experiments, and everybody has a narrative," Bridget Burns, UIA's executive director, told attendees at the Educause conference in Chicago in October 2019. "(But) the diffusion of innovation is glacial, and most people are not very aware of what's going on, and most people struggle with actually how to fix it."
After all, what could one public research university — in its own world of state funding, geographic enrollment trends and institution-specific growth plans — do that another could effectively implement?
A lot, it turns out. By examining and rethinking areas of the institution that could be improved with better data, more information-sharing and, in some cases, the help of technology, the UIA schools are on track to graduate an additional 94,000 students by 2025.That's ahead of their initial mark of 68,000 additional students.
The group of 11 institutions comprises Arizona State, Georgia State,Iowa State,Michigan State, Ohio State,Oregon State and Purdue universities, as well as the University of California, Riverside, the University of Central Florida, the University of Kansasand the University of Texas at Austin.
Together, they have examined how to collect and use data to spot students who are falling behind or may soon be — a process implemented increasingly across higher ed, though not without some criticism. Other areas of focus for UIA include redesigning the link between higher ed, career services and employers,and exploring how chatbots can be used on campuses.How colleges can become more user-friendly for adult learners is also expected to be on the table.
Through it all, the campuses have shared lessons while still approaching the issues with the unique needs of their own institutions in mind. "We know that a cookie-cutter approach is a bad idea," Burns told Higher Ed Dive in 2019.
Higher Ed Dive sat down with Burns in the fall of 2019 in Washington, D.C., to talk more about what UIA has learned about collaborations among universities, and how those lessons can be applied in other consortia and within institutions of all sizes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
HIGHER ED DIVE: Predictive analytics was UIA's first project. Was that by design?
BURNS:We needed a scoreboard to know if our work was making a difference. If you haven't done the work to identify your indicators, and you haven't synced your data system, then you're dealing with very obtuse metrics that aren't always helpful.
We've reported on some of the challenges UIA schools faced in that process, one of which was that many first needed to map their processes and data internally. Did you expect that to be a challenge?
I had no idea what the challenges were going to be. It's like anything where you take on a new skill or ability, in that you don't actually know what your gaps are, and you can't focus on those because you wouldn't probably start. Those were critical in moving forward.
Where were you starting from?
We had an example of an institution that had figured something out and was showing some impressive capacity and capability that other campuses wanted. Initially, we framed it as there were mentors and mentees, but we walked away from that language because nobody wants to be called a mentee. We actually found in some cases we were learning more from those in the mentee role than we were from the mentor.
Quickly, we learned that nobody wants to just emulate one institution. What we were trying to pursue was: What lessons could you learn from collective scale, what could you sift through all these different experiences and pull out as the gold?
You've said that required building trust among UIA schools. How did that happen, and what can colleges and universities looking to build trust internally learn from that?
Initially, I traveled to each campus and interviewed people about what was going wrong, what was hard, what was getting in the way. After about five of those it was so clear: Every campus had the same problems, but none of them realized it.
In most collaborations, it's not just about what can we do together. It's about what problem can we solve together that I simply cannot handle on my own. In this case, that was around overwhelm and not really understanding what the first steps are. A lot of how institutions share involves elevating examples of work in such a high fashion that people talk about what was achieved and not about the questions they couldn't answer, or asking the dumb question, or figuring out what's the first step. Those are the things people want to talk about.
The first priority in building a collaboration is figuring out how to create the conditions for a truly candid conversation about shared struggles.
Is higher ed different from any other industry in that way?
I don't think they are truly unique problems, but unlike other sectors, we really do somehow believe we are competing with every single other university or college, even if we are not in the same space. Part of it is the general sense of scarcity that's communicated through media, state budgets, who gets elevated as the innovator.
Another part of it is that it is not very common — or not as common as it should be — to have worked at multiple universities due to geographic constraints. Every university has a story about why they do what they do, and if you see enough of those stories, you can see them for what they are. But if you work at one or two institutions, maybe three, maybe you're not picking up that these are sector-wide problems and we shouldn't be pushing this up a hill.
What can smaller colleges that don't have the internal economies of scale of UIA schools learn from that work?
I don't think UIA's lessons have been about the number of students we serve. They've been about fairly typical universities struggling with fairly typical challenges but going about it unusually. On the data front, in particular, the lessons we gathered carry for any size of campus. Your first job is to identify the top 10 indicators that a student is about to drop out. That seems simple, but the vast majority of campuses don't know the answer to that question, and it should keep them up at night.
Small colleges should team up with other small colleges. What problems do you have at your institution that are consistent and you haven't been able to solve? Find others struggling with those same problems and set up a conversation that allows you to solve it together.
You said during a talk at Educause 2019 that "everyone has massive, million-dollar failures on their campus" that don't get discussed. UIA schools seem to have figured out a way to talk about some of that. What can other colleges learn from their approach?
Most of the time, I have a hard time getting institutions to acknowledge that something didn't work out. It's about creating a space where there's something else there instead of it just being the word 'failure.' I’m still looking for exceptional examples of the implementation of autopsy processes inside a campus.
And it depends on where you sit. Some presidents tell me they have a great process, but then I talk to people on their team who will say, "I don't know what they're talking about." It's possible that isn't actually a failure. It's possible it's about leadership communication and that people don't understand what the actual goal is. It's also possible that people on that campus don't understand the perspective of the leader and don't see the bigger picture.
In general, I would say it is worth leaning in because that demonstrates there is a need for greater understanding
As colleges and universities approach the looming demographic cliff in undergraduate enrollment weakened by the effects of the pandemic, newer applications for data and analytics will be all the more crucial for student retention and success.
included in this trendline
How higher ed institutions are deploying apps to track spread of the virus
Analysis of how students fared with online learning to determine improvements with instruction
Why utilizing AI and data analytics can help campuses adapt to the new normal amid a pandemic
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