This past week, the Eduventures team attended the 2015 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Indianapolis. It was a great opportunity to take the pulse of the latest trends facing technology leaders in higher education. Walking through the exhibit hall, it was clear that nearly every software provider wanted to highlight offerings in two key areas: integrated analytics and cloud SIS. On signs visible from across the tradeshow floor, vendors announced to institutions in ten-foot letters that 2015 is the year of analytics and now is the time to move core enterprise data systems to the cloud.

Analytics: All the cool acronyms—LMS, ERP, CRM, CMS—are doing it

Traditional learning application and assessment vendors now offer integrated analytics to identify trends in assessment outcomes, usually for an additional licensing fee. Digital content distributors are bundling analytics in their dashboards for publishers and institutions, allowing content purchasers to evaluate which digital textbook or open education resource passages most effectively achieve specific learning objectives. With all the claims analytics software vendors are making, CIOs are struggling to evaluate the accuracy of these predictive tools and to recruit and train the staff needed to implement and support these complex systems.

We spent part of our time at EDUCAUSE with the Salesforce Foundation’s CIO Council, which we briefed on the overall trends in the adoption of analytics in higher education. The council consists of technology leaders from a cross section of higher education institutions. These CIOs are all trying to make sense of the crowded market of analytics vendors and other service providers and their different approaches to aggregating institutional data to glean insights for various stakeholders. Our conversations with this group confirmed that higher education is still far behind other industries in its adoption of enterprise-wide analytics, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

The lag in higher education’s adoption of analytics isn’t due to a lack of vendors offering analytics software engines and complex dashboard visualizations. On the contrary, nearly every enterprise software vendor now offers some form of analytics. Some identify students in need of assistance within their own applications, while others ingest data from multiple learning applications and identify correlations between academic engagement and learning outcomes. It is this overwhelming demand for data integration between systems and the need for high-quality data and governance that sometimes stall the ROI of any analytics offering. This is why companies that offer data integration services, such as LingkN2N SolutionsCivitas, and iData, were quite popular at EDUCAUSE this year. The acts of normalizing, mapping, transforming, and moving data between disparate systems for analytics purposes have become big business in higher education. As new standards emerge that enable even more data to flow between systems, such as the IMS Caliper standard for learning events, this business opportunity will surely increase.

Another reason that analytics has been slow to catch on in higher education is the lack of skilled data scientists who are trained in the ways of predictive modeling and the standard software best practices for looking at complex educational data sets and identifying the unasked questions. A recent McKinsey study projects that by 2018, the skills gap for jobs requiring a background in analytics may be close to 60%. At EDUCAUSE, Dell announced that it is making its Statistica analytics software completely free for academic purposes in order to boost interest in data science careers. We discussed the implications of this announcement with Jon Phillips, Managing Director of Worldwide Education Strategy at Dell. In making analytics available to all students, Dell’s goal is to encourage the use of data science to solve problems and to foster a culture of inquiry across academic disciplines. By building experience with analytic tools based on the open source R, Dell is hoping that students will graduate with transferrable skills and be ready to take on any number of data science careers at Dell and in other industries. Institutional research teams can use advanced software for professional development and internal data science projects, building out the core institutional competency in data science that’s required to develop predictive models for enterprise-wide analytics projects.

The Clouds Continue to Roll in Slowly

As with most advancements in new technology, higher education has been slow to adopt cloud computing, particularly for larger enterprise data systems such as the ERP and SIS. While that has been true for the past few years as cloud advancements have begun to grow in CRM, LMS, and other enterprise applications at the institution, Eduventures forecasts that 2016 will be the year of the Cloud ERP/SIS. Every major vendor of these core data systems will have a solution for clients seeking cloud deployment options within the next 12 months. However, each vendor will take a completely different approach to the features that make up their core ERP offering as opposed to separately licensed modules. For example, will they consider financial aid, academic advising, or reporting and analytics as part of the core? Each vendor will also have different timing for the availability of each capability in the cloud at launch; some critical modules will only be ready sometime after launch.

One vendor who wanted to make a case for migrating your entire SIS to the cloud today was UNIT4. While it, too, has developed a new cloud-based student information system from scratch, UNIT4 is distinguishing itself by launching with all core SIS capabilities in its initial 2016 release, not just admissions. Eduventures met with the UNIT4 team to understand its strategy for promoting cloud adoption. It has recognized that institutions won’t generally be ready to migrate the entirety of their operations from on-premise SIS to the cloud unless the solution includes all the critical components—from admissions through financial aid—and integrated analytics for each module. UNIT4 will definitely need the head start in the higher education SIS market in order to get out in front of likely product announcements in 2016 from Ellucian, Oracle, and Jenzabar. One other vendor, Workday, shared more information about its plans for cloud SIS, and its strategy couldn’t be more different from what UNIT4 is attempting.

While Workday has been signing up institutions for its human capital management (HCM) and financials products over the past 10 years, schools have been anxiously awaiting its solution for student and academic management. At EDUCAUSE, it finally announced Workday Student Admissions to an eager institutional market. Some institutions have cited waiting to see the product roadmap for Workday Student as a reason for delaying a move to any cloud-based ERP from any vendor. Their rationale is that this would be Workday’s first attempt at developing student management applications from scratch; they wanted to see if Workday’s approach would be consistent with the quality of its HCM products and what institutions have come to expect from an ERP system after over 30 years of using these systems. Workday’s announcement seemed well-timed to capitalize on the EDUCAUSE buzz for cloud technology, but the product roadmap for its vision is stretched to deliver features over the next two years, which started with recruitment in 2014, admissions in 2015, and culminates with student financials and financial aid in 2017. Few institutions might be willing to migrate only their admissions processes to a new cloud vendor, as the admissions application market is already crowded with other cloud offerings. Admissions is one component of student management that requires tight coupling with other aspects of the ERP and presents significant integration costs if the institution is using applications from multiple vendors.

There is good news for institutions considering a switch to a cloud platform. Since an ERP or SIS migration project typically takes 12-18 months, it is quite likely that by the time they target a go-live on the new platform, the vast majority of features that are critical for campus operations should be publicly available. That frees institutions up to make their choices based on a belief that the vendor’s overall user experience, workflow management, integrated reporting, and analytics offerings align with institutional needs and represent the best chance to realize the operational and cost efficiencies that standardizing on a cloud offering should provide.

Join us this month at Eduventures Summit 2015! We are hosting a panel of CEOs from several major LMS vendors, including BlackboardD2LInstructure, and Schoology. We will dig into each LMS’s approach to analytics and their motivations for becoming larger stewards of learner data.