A tablet for every freshman is creating a big data university

AUSTIN, TEX. –Southern Illinois University had student recruitment and retention in mind when it decided to move towards a digital curriculum and issue every incoming freshman this year a Windows 8 tablet. Already though, the university is beginning to realize another potential benefit from the digital move: big data.

Speaking on a Dell customer panel on the eve of the vendor’s Dell World conference here on Tuesday, David Crain, assistant provost and CIO at Southern Illinois University, discussed how with a progressive new chancellor the university of some 20,000 students has decided to embrace technology. Crain was hired as the university’s first CIO with a mandate to make Southern Illinois a leader in higher education technology, and this year he oversaw an ambitious project: every incoming freshman student – all 2800 of them – along with some 400 faculty that teach freshman courses were each issued a Dell Latitude 10 tablet running Windows 8.

The university is working to transition to a digital curriculum at the same time. The core classes for those incoming freshman all have online materials – even much cheaper digital textbooks to replace the hard copy versions – along with a “Mobile Dawg” app (named for the school’s mascot) that will grow over time to add new student services.

“We want to integrate that tablet into every part of the student’ life,” said Crain. “We want a laundry app, bus schedules, course materials, project reports. Anything you can thinkl of we’re trying to put into that app so that tablet is integrated into every part of their lives.”

And incoming freshmen this spring will get the new Dell Venue 11 Pro tablet. When he started as CIO the campus didn’t even have Wi-Fi, but Crain said now it sees technology as key to attracting students. With what they have now at home, and even in high school, their technology expectations for their university are higher than ever before, and keeping up with them is a challenge.

“Studies show technology is increasingly a factor to which school students choose, and we saw it as a recruitment and retention problem,” said Crain. “We have unique challenges in public higher education. Dell gets that, and does a great job of working with us and providing solutions at prices we can afford.”

One outcome Crain said they weren’t expecting from the move to tablets and digital course materials was big data, but the university now has a wealth of information at its fingertips. As with any organization though, the challenge will now be turning that big data into actionable intelligence.

“We’re overwhelmed with data. We can tell when they’re in class, and how long they spent on a certain chapter. Now we need to see how it all relates,” said Crain. “The question is how we turn that data into actionable analytics to improve business outcomes.”

Just having the data isn’t going to mean anything without a culture change though, said Crain.

“We have to change our culture to deal with that data. We’re creating a data scientist position, but the data doesn’t do you any good unless you act on it,” said Crain. “We have to change the culture of the university. The technology is always the easy part; the culture part is what’s hard.”

And culture has been the challenge already with the move to tablets and digital ciriculum. While it has been embraced by students – Southern Illinois had its largest freshmen class in 20 years – Crain said the faculty has been another story.

For the students, technology has been in their DNA. It’s how they were brought up; in K-12 the shift to digital is already well underway. It’s why Crain is beginning the project with each new freshman class, and its large survey classes often taught by sessional lectures – often younger themselves – over whom the administration has more leeway to mandate a move to digital.

With the tenured and unionized faculty, who have been teaching the same way for generations and are somewhat resistant to change, Crain said it has been more challenging.

“It has been an uphill battle, and we didn’t do as good a job as we should have for this initial launch. Our survey results were positive, but the negative comments were culture and change related,” said Crain. “Some didn’t like the tablet, or Windows 8. Some preferred their iPads. Next we’re we’re planning more training for faculty and staff.”

Crain hopes that by starting with each freshmen class the digital wave will begin to ripple through the university, and more faculty will come on board. And he’s offering a carrot as well.

“I’m bribing faculty,” joked Crain. “I’ll give them a Venue 11 Pro if they go to digital textbooks for their courses. Our whole aviation department recently agreed to do just that.”

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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