How CIOs can use big data to transform education

collegeThe growth of “big data” has been one of the most notable IT trends of the past few years. All around the world, chief information officers are realizing they have more power than ever to collect information, stockpile it and use sophisticated data analysis tools to find meaningful conclusions.

Every organization – big or small, public or private, for profit or not, you name it – has the potential to use big data. Retailers can perform analyses to help them decide how to deliver the right products to consumers. Marketing companies can find which demographics to target with their advertising campaigns. The federal government can crunch numbers and find out how to balance budgets, improve social services or even just make the trains run on time.

Everyone has a use for big data. Perhaps nowhere is it more influential than in education, where CIOs have the opportunity to improve the way we nurture the next generation. The American ideal is an education system where no child is left behind, but how far is that from reality? Could using more data analysis help bridge that gap?

Joy Hughes certainly thinks so. Hughes is the CIO at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia, and she wrote for Information Week that she sees boundless potential for herself and other CIOs like her in using big data to transform higher education.

Think of all the questions that colleges and universities grapple with every year. What’s more effective for teaching students – big classrooms or small ones? Aging, tenured professors or young, ambitious TAs? Where are there inefficiencies in the budget? The financial aid office? The admissions process? The housing system?

By examining more data, colleges could find trends pointing toward answers to all of these questions. They simply need to take the initiative, which is something not all have been willing to do just yet.

“When I talk to higher education CIOs about the ‘big data’ craze, I sense the same reluctance to get involved in an emerging concept that could siphon off resources from the maintenance of current systems and might turn out to be a passing fad (a fad like ‘all courses will be taught via computer games’),” Hughes wrote. “Yet there are many signs that big data, especially when accompanied by sophisticated predictive analytics, is not a fad, but rather a transformative technology environment that is as needed in higher education as in the corporate world.”

A new role for teachers
According to Forbes, beginning this revolution with education CIOs will be much easier said than done. Colleges and universities tend to be very set in their ways. They have a traditional, institutionalized way of doing things, and no one person – even a bold and talented CIO – can change that. But eventually, it would be ideal for schools to move away from impulsive thinking and toward cold, objective analysis.

Forbes contributor Gil Press argues that teachers will need to be a part of this process as well. In the future, it won’t be enough merely to work as a “professor” – one will have to serve as a data scientist as well. Educators will monitor statistical trends in the progress of their students, tracking every assignment and looking for signs of strengths or weaknesses.

Ultimately, the goal is for data to be a help to school administrators, not just teachers. But institutional change is likely to be a long and arduous process.

For CIOs, it’s imperative to focus on improving the state of education. The IT industry may be thriving today, but it’s also important to develop our youth and churn out another generation of skilled professionals tomorrow.

Marie Larsen
Marie is a writer for She has an educational background in languages and literature. She covers IT trends and executive technology management topics for the company.