Within the analytics group at Blackboard, our mission is to help institutions of higher education to extract value from data. It is easy to think that this is all about products. It’s not.
We hobble ourselves if we think about ‘extracting value from data’ only in terms of product. As a vendor, if we limit our thinking to the things we make and sell, then we actually undermine our ability to fulfill our core mission. Analytics take place at the intersection of information and human wisdom. If we ignore the human side of analytics, the side that makes information meaningful and puts it into action, then we are not engaged in analytics at all. If we develop the most amazing and ‘delightful’ algorithms and visualizations, but ignore problems like technology adoption and data literacy, then we fail before we begin.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of the first annual Blackboard Analytics Symposium. In so far as it is for existing Blackboard Analytics customers only, it is a user conference. Too often, however, user conferences are not about users at all. They are product conferences. Where the Blackboard Analytics Symposium is unique is that it is born out a recognition that supporting community is as important as the products we create. If we are truly motivated by a desire to help people to extract value from data, then working with customers to ensure that they are effective in the adoption and use of our products is as important as the products themselves.
When viewed in this way, the activity of conference-planning does not take place without a great sense of responsibility. Every part of the event must be purposeful. Everything on the agenda must be important. I once wrote that “the problem with deciding to organize a conference is that you are likely to end up with one.” It is possible to plan an event that looks like a conference in every way, but that does not add significant value to attendees. If you set out to plan a conference, you have already gotten it wrong. If you set out to meet the needs of the community that you serve, then you will get it right every time.
Analytics vendors do not extract value from data. It is the task of a technology company to eliminate barriers to the application of human intelligence to information. Tools are important, but at the end of the day, value is extracted by users who apply their wisdom to information in order to solve complex problems. If we at Blackboard take our mission seriously, then using technology to mitigate barriers to information access is vital, but so is helping users to make sense of that information once they have it. The best (and perhaps only) way to do that is through community. In order to be truly effective in putting analytics into action, the best resource is always going to be those who have done it before.
For the Blackboard Analytics team, helping people to extract value from data ultimately means working to eliminate two kinds of barrier: barriers to information, and barriers to action. Through our work in support of community (through the Blackboard Analytics Symposium, our community newsletter, our customer advisory board, and other projects that we will announce in 2017), we are bringing our users together to discuss challenges and share what works. We believe in the power of networks, and that such networks are vital if we are to solve the educational challenges that we face today.
In this, the weight of responsibility that comes with organizing an event like the Blackboard Analytics Symposium is compounded by the importance of the goals that our customers are working to achieve. There continues to be a wealth of untapped potential in the US, and around the world. There are institutions doing amazing things to support their students, but that have not received the attention necessary to see those high impact practices adopted by others. There are colleges and universities that are languishing under performance pressures, longing for ways to put their institutional data to work, but that struggle with knowing where to begin.
I truly believe that the Blackboard Analytics Symposium is more than a conference, and that it is more than just useful. I believe that it is important because it has the potential to reduce barriers to cooperation between institutions, catalyze community, generate innovative solutions to specific problems, and shine a light on high impact scaleable practices that would otherwise not be promoted by institutions themselves. It is the job of institutions to extract value from their data through action. Through Blackboard’s dual-investment in products and people, we are helping colleges and universities to do just that.