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Pitt Using Analytics to Advance the Higher Ed Experience

For faculty and staff dedicated to student success — helping with everything from assisting with complex financial aid questions to simply advising which classes to choose — new ways to approach the challenge are on the horizon.

An old approach to solving problems has often been waiting until a problem happens before trying to solve it. “Now we’re trying to get to the students in advance and offer help,” said Stephen Wisniewski, University of Pittsburgh vice provost for data and information and chair of the inaugural Advanced Analytics Summit held at Pitt this month.

To those not fluent in the terminology used in the realm of data and information, the term “advanced analytics” might have little meaning in itself, but most people use advanced analytics every day. The way Spotify identifies new songs to add to a playlist, the way a supermarket generates coupons, the way Amazon or Netflix suggest new products or movies are all examples of how advanced analytics works in everyday life.

To drive the conversation and to explore the possibilities and implications of using similar systems in higher education, Pitt and Pittsburgh-based education analytics company Othot organized the Advanced Analytics Summit — the second is already planned for Oct. 17-18, 2019. The conference brought together representatives from more than 40 U.S. universities that are beginning to develop programs, tools or interest in the advanced analytics sphere and featured Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist at Google.

As Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd said in remarks at the summit, “These are all just buzzwords unless we address problems purposefully and use tools intentionally.”

At Pitt, this purposeful development is underway.

The Office of the Provost is working with the University Center for International Studies and the Outside the Classroom Curriculum in Student Affairs to develop and pilot a recommendation engine that would direct students to opportunities they might otherwise not be aware of — all based on their previous experiences, likes and dislikes.

In addition, a platform for advanced analytics to support student success, named Pathways, uses advanced analytics to develop predictive and proscriptive models. When fully integrated, the Pathways platform will be able to send push personalized notifications to students’ phones, like reminders to register for classes or suggestions on their academic course. This tailored outreach is a critical tool in coaching, advising and mentoring students and helping them to engage more fully with the University. The platform is being introduced to schools via a phased rollout, beginning with first-year students in the School of Nursing and the Swanson School of Engineering.

Taking a phased approach to rollout offers Pathways participants a chance to detect challenges to broader usage. For example, Wisniewski noted that different schools use different advising models; some schools have professional advisors for students for all four years, while others introduce faculty advisors after first or second years. “We’re working to fit this tool so it works with these different models,” he said.

Input into the development and implementation of Pathways has been a collaborative process, Wisniewski said. Representatives from the undergraduate units and students have been involved throughout the process. “It is essential to get different points of view to minimize any issues with the rollout,” he added.

Advanced analytics can also assist staff and administrators on crafting more strategic budgets, better allocating limited resources.

For example, Wisniewski and Marc Harding, vice provost for enrollment, are conducting an experiment using a number of variables to determine which prospective students would get a printed viewbook — a standard marketing piece that Pitt has used regularly.

Comparing application rates of prospective students based on whether they receive the printed piece or digital marketing instead could support investing more resources in digital solutions — or reinforce the effectiveness of the printed piece. Such advances can help recruiting and enrollment offices better utilize resources.

Beyond collecting more data and advancing better outcomes for students, Wisniewski stressed the ultimate goal of using advanced analytics to inform the student experiences — from recruitment to retention to post-graduation outcomes — is simple: “We want to try to get our students to have the best experience possible and succeed in life. And we expect [these efforts] will aid in that process.”

More information about the inaugural Advanced Analytics Summit — including biographies from speakers and panelists — is available online at aas.pitt.edu.

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  • Stephen Wisniewski, vice provost for data and information, chaired the Advanced Analytics Summit, which over two days included a keynote speech and panel discussions. The summit brought together leaders from universities across the country to share their schools’ efforts to use data to drive student recruitment, retention and outcomes. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In her introductory remarks, Senior Vice Chancellor and Provost Ann Cudd noted that Pitt intends to use advanced analytics to help students achieve excellence in education, build better and stronger networks and identify and pursue their life goals. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In his keynote speech, Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist at Google, shared how education helped him make the journey from growing up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s to making speeches about learning to a White House-audience that included former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left are Andy Hannah, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and analytics, executive in residence at Pitt Business and co-founder of Summit co-sponsor OThot; Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist at Google; Ann Cudd, provost and senior vice chancellor; and Stephen Wisniewski, vice provost for data and information and co-director of the Epidemiology Data Center at Pitt Public Health. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)