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Pitt Sets Course for Student Success With Inaugural Advanced Analytics Summit

Five people in group having a discussion
Imagine being in college, knowing there are countless educational and career paths to choose from, but not being sure about how to make the best decisions to go in in the right direction.

Now imagine a tool that looks at specific interests, experiences and goals and lights the way along a personalized path — pointing to relevant opportunities that might otherwise have remained unknown.

Advanced Analytics Summit 

Save the date: Oct. 17-18, 2019.

Visit aas.pitt.edu throughout the year for more summit details as they emerge.

“Let’s say you’ve taken some Spanish courses in high school and are taking a Spanish history course here at Pitt,” said Stephen Wisniewski, vice provost for data and information at the University of Pittsburgh. Similar to the way Spotify creates playlists based on musical tastes or how Amazon recommends products based on search or purchase history, data within Pitt’s various systems “could lead to you being notified about an upcoming speaker on campus talking about Spanish culture or perhaps a study abroad opportunity in Spain.”

This example only begins to scratch the surface of how data could be used to tailor advice to each individual college student. In October, Pitt hosted its first Advanced Analytics Summit — the planning for next year’s is already underway — to drive the conversation and to explore the possibilities and implications.

The summit featured Google Inc.’s Chief Education Evangelist Jaime Casap as keynote speaker.

“Advanced analytics converts information into intelligence,” said Casap.“It needs iteration and innovation to bring education to the next level.”

Pittsburgh-based education analytics company Othot teamed with Pitt to host the summit, attended by analytics experts and representatives from 40 universities from across the country. Those gathered further filled out the program with presentations delving into the range of possibilities and cutting-edge use of advanced analytics. Panel discussions addressed identifying students in need of additional support for  course, leveraging financial aid, increasing affordability initiatives and helping students achieve their academic goals. No longer is gathering data as narrow as collecting surveys from students. Variables such as debt, academic performance, course load and personal interests among other data points are considered.

Pitt itself is at work on a recommendation engine data platform which would provide the types of suggestions like the ones described in the example about Spanish courses, guiding students to opportunities based on their past experiences. 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 this tool.

Ann Cudd, provost and senior vice chancellor at Pitt, said that as advanced analytics moves forward at the University, two topics of focus include identifying whether the use of data is universally good and what potential dangers exist, and how to keep the human components to avoid generalizing.

“All of the terms we’ve discussed are buzzwords unless we use tools intentionally and address problems purposefully,” Cudd said in her opening remarks at the summit. “Two of our main objectives are raising graduation rates and closing achievement gaps. Things to focus on are excellence in education, building a network and identifying and pursuing life goals and leading a life of impact.”

Othot cofounder Andy Hannah, who is also a graduate of the Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and an adjunct professor of business analytics at Pitt Business, noted the enormous possibilities.

“As Forbes magazine recently pointed out, during the last two years alone, 90 percent of the data in the world has been generated,” he said.

While the vast amounts of information may be overwhelming, data privacy is seen as a key fundamental of building and maintaining trust between students and universities.

“It is vitally important that the storage of data be secure,” Wisniewski said. “To that end, experts in the field collectively work to understand and address the ever-changing technology landscape to protect sensitive data.”

Wisniewski said that Pitt’s focus on advanced analytics has one driving principle.

“The primary reason is to better serve our students. That is our ultimate goal,” he said.  “That’s what we want out of this. We want them to have the best experience possible and we’re using analytics to help that process.”