In 1900 David Hilbert, a godfather of modern mathematics, posed ten major “unsolved” problems. Hilbert’s challenge prepared the stage for one of the most fertile periods in mathematics, stimulating groundbreaking results, opening up new areas of investigation, and energizing the mathematical community. Can we pose a similar grand challenge for higher education, one that will spur innovation in learning and catalyze the education community?

EDUCAUSE President Diana G. Oblinger has begun to do just that, stating that “improving college readiness and completion for the next generation is a grand challenge for society.” Oblinger has thrown down the gauntlet to the higher education community and information technology professionals:

one of our profession’s greatest opportunities may be to use the breadth of the capabilities of information technology to address these challenges.” Diana G. Oblinger

Oblinger’s challenge to the higher education community is part of EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC), a bold initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “identify and scale technology-enabled approaches to dramatically improve college readiness and completion, particularly for low-income young adults.” In his blog Bill Gates observes that although more people than ever attend college, most never graduate.


“Can technology enable more engaging, flexible learning and improve the rate of college completion?” —Bill Gates

The statistics on college completion are alarming. The percentage of jobs requiring some level of college preparation grew from 28 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 2007 and is expected to increase to 62 percent by 2018. While enrollment in college has increased by more than 10 million students since 1970, completion rates have remained flat:

  • In the United States, more than half of all college students do not complete a degree or credential.
  • At four-year institutions, 56 percent of first-time students complete their degree within six years.
  • At two-year institutions, only 28 percentof first-time students complete their credential within three years.
  • For minority and low-income students, the numbers are even worse: as few as one-quarter of low-income students complete a degree.

Source: Oblinger, For the Next Generation. EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 5 (September/October 2010): 76–96

EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Learning Challenge is a bold and exciting vision which, according to Oblinger, “re-imagines the future of student success with IT as an essential enabler, making customized, interactive learning possible.”

The Promise of Analytics

What will it take to deliver on the Next Generation Learning Challenge? EDUCAUSE and The Gates Foundation recognize that we must go beyond “islands of innovation” to technologies and practices which can be scaled and shared widely. They also recognize that Analytics is one of the key areas for development and investment.

Analytics is not just another trend among trends but a technology approach that can fundamentally transform learning and institutional practices.

In industry it’s well established that analytics is strategic and correlates with performance and profitability. A recent study by MIT Sloan Management Review, for example, found that “top-performing organizations use analytics five times more than lower performers”. “Our study clearly connects performance and the competitive value of analytics.”

The MIT Sloan study also classifies three capability or maturation levels — Aspirational, Experienced, and Transformed — in an organization’s implementation of analytics.

“Aspirational. These organizations are the farthest from achieving their desired analytical goals. Often they are focusing on efficiency or automation of existing processes, and searching for ways to cut costs. Aspirational organizations currently have few of the necessary building blocks — people, processes or tools — to collect, understand, incorporate or act on analytic insights.

Experienced. Having gained some analytic experience — often through successes with efficiencies at the Aspirational phase — these organizations are looking to go beyond cost management. Experienced organizations are developing better ways to effectively collect, incorporate and act on analytics so they can begin to optimize their organizations.

Transformed. These organizations have substantial experience using analytics across a broad range of functions. They use analytics as a competitive differentiator and are already adept at organizing people, processes and tools to optimize and differentiate. Transformed organizations are less focused on cutting costs than Aspirational and Experienced organizations, possibly having already automated their operations through effective use of insights. They are most focused on driving customer profitability and making targeted investments in niche analytics as they keep pushing the organizational envelope.”   Source: Analytics: The New Path to Value. MIT Sloan Management Review

Analytics is the Holy Grail in education and will be one of the key technologies for solving the NGLC. In future postings I will highlight innovators already working in the area and outline key challenges for organizations trying to jumpstart their analytics efforts.

Leave a comment