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Five Questions to Ask Your Higher Ed Tech Tools

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Higher edtech tools

By James Cousins, Senior Statistical Analyst

In the world of higher education, there are perennial debates. What is a manageable discount rate? How many meetings is too many meetings? Who stole your favorite mug from the lounge? More substantively, there are bound to be mixed opinions on whether your campus technology is useful. Well, we know better than to choose sides on those debates. Instead, we have put together five important questions you should be asking of your higher ed tech tools.

These data systems are designed for different reasons and for various audiences. Here is a brief list of the sorts of systems in higher ed:

  • Learning Management Systems (“LMS”- course data, etc.)
  • Student Information Systems (“SIS”- registration, financial information)
  • Enrollment Management Systems (application tracking, marketing platforms)
  • Course Management Systems (portals for students and faculty)

Realistically, there are dozens of more categories that surround these sorts of offerings.

Ideally, these higher ed tech tools collect and provide information that can help your institution improve key outcomes (e.g. student enrollment, retention, graduation, gainful employment). We’ve learned a thing or two about what key attributes help them meet these aspirations. Here’s how to get the most out of your systems.

1. Can You Access the Data?

You might assume that because it is your data that you have full control of it. However, not all systems are designed with external analysis in mind. If it’s an LMS, SIS, CRM, or some other acronym, you may find it situated along a spectrum of “highly inconvenient data extraction” to “direct access for authorized users.” At first, it’s quite likely you won’t be significantly impacted by this trait of your higher ed tech tools. However, down the road, it’s very common to want the data from, say, your learning management system to feed into the data already tracked in your student information system. Thus, you should ask this question early so you have a plan for later.

2. Does This System Work with That System?

This stems directly from the first point. If either one or all of the data storage systems in question have convenient data extract capabilities, you’re off to a great start towards interoperability.

However, it’s important to ask if there are clear ways to connect a student or applicant in one location to their corresponding record in the other systems. You might wonder about the value of asking this question- if it connects, that’s great, there was no reason to be concerned. If it doesn’t, what can you do about it? If you figure this out early on, it gives you the chance to implement a customization to your system. For instance, you can add a new identifying field to the out-of-the-box variables. You’ll thank yourself later.

3. Time: How Do Higher Ed Tech Tools Archive Data?

This ends up being a more intricate question than the first two. Some student information systems will exclusively update records with the latest available information. Others will maintain fully redundant records with timestamps for each status update. Many will do both. This is an important protocol to be aware of. It might mean that you need to create your own “frozen files”- files that reflect the data as of specific points in time. If the solution (LMS, SIS, etc.) already maintains these redundant records in a sort of “audit” table, it may end up saving you a lot of time, and enable advanced analyses down the line. For instance, analyses like convenient point-in-time reporting, or predictive modeling.

4. What Kind of Documentation and Support is Available?

Consider this number one in terms of importance. Have you ever used a data system with unclear abbreviations or several columns that sound like they should be describing the same actual characteristic? We have. It’s inconvenient to say the least. The truth is, it has almost certainly led to inaccurate reporting and modeling efforts on several occasions. Most institutions go on to have their unofficial “data guru.” But, with several departments and several tables and then also several distinct data systems, that isn’t a good long-term solution. You should consider not leaving it up to the bravest volunteer in the institution. That’s why it’s important to be aware of any data dictionaries or training and support that the system vendor provides. Then, be sure to give that reference file a clear, easy label to understand.

5. Does This System Overlap With Any Other System?

This is becoming all-too-common. The push for a more streamlined, more comprehensive higher ed tech for all of your needs has driven the market for the past several years. You might find out, for instance, that application data is not actually stored in your student information system because now you have a marketing platform that improves recruitment, as well as stores relevant data. If admissions has an easier time tracking their app data in a CRM, they won’t always tell the registrar or Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) key holder that they no longer push the data to the SIS as well. Another reason to learn early on if two or more systems overlap would allow you to raise awareness. Even if there’s no way to make sure the data is maintained in multiple systems, you won’t be missing data.

Improve How You Use Your Tools

What will these questions get you? In all reasonable likelihood, they will get you a mix of relief and stress. There might not be an elegant solution between systems. But with so many new higher ed tech in the industry, and constant developments amongst existing systems, that’s to be expected. You can mitigate any issues as long as you know about them, and you can develop relatively convenient solutions around the limitations that you discover. You can also identify exciting possibilities that you weren’t aware of.

As a final note, we’ve provided this list as a courtesy for you to ask of any system, in any context. However, we’d love to show you how the Rapid Insight platform can help you with all five of these points. Painting even the worst-case scenario: You can’t get access to your data easily, your systems don’t communicate conveniently, there’s no archiving database reference material, or extensive overlaps, Rapid Insight’s data prep and predictive analytics tool can still help you. We know because we have. We’ve worked with customers to join together data from systems and been amazed at the results. Let us know if you’re interested – we’re always happy to share.

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