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IBM and Desire2Learn Take On Education Data Challenge

Educators face a major challenge in trying to sync up the data they collect on their students with the learning and teaching standards set by their states and the curriculum and other learning resources they have available to guide lessons in the classroom. By the time the analysis of all the variables is done and understood, who has time for teaching?

To address this challenge, IBM and Desire2Learn are teaming up to deliver a solution intended to help K-12 and higher education schools make use of the mass of data collected on students to improve the outcome of educational efforts. The initiative, named Smarter Education Solution, combines technology and professional services from both companies, including Desire2Learn's learning management system and related components in the LMS suite and IBM's predictive analytics and reporting tools in its Cognos and SPSS lines.

The solution, which has at its heart data management and analysis and predictive analytics, has two core offerings. One product, Analytics for Smarter Education, integrates data pulled from multiple sources and makes that available to teachers, faculty, and administrators. It can also feed into a district or region reporting structure to provide a "big picture" view of results. The other product, Intervention Management, enlists IBM's capabilities in workflow improvement and process management. Both offerings will be sold by the IBM sales force.

The products are designed to help in four areas:

  • Integrating data from multiple sources to provide a single view of student progress and achievement;
  • Leveraging data analytics to provide teachers and administrators insights on teaching effectiveness, student outcomes, operational efficiency, and effectiveness;
  • Creating early-warning systems for at-risk students using predictive analytics; and
  • Building "learning communities" with teachers, students, parents, and specialists to work together to identify and implement instructional intervention plans to improve student performance.

Desire2Learn's LMS can deliver specific data about individual students and their work, while IBM provides the data analysis expertise and tools to cull meaning from the data.

Fundamentally, said Patricia Sullivan, IBM education solution executive, "It's about putting data to work for teachers and students. Historically, data has often been used for punitive measures: Who are the bad teachers, the bad classrooms, the bad students. This solution really is about shifting the mindset and enabling the teachers as professionals with data and resources so they can make informed decisions for their students and really have access to a wealth of resources to draw from that are guided by the intervention management system and predictive analytics."

"What we're doing with IBM is taking a lot of great information that already exists in the [LMS suite], but at the same time mapping in a lot of additional information and gaining a deeper understanding so that there's more focus on the student, helping administrators ultimately deliver student learning outcomes that are enhanced by having a greater end-to-end understanding," added Desire2Learn's VP of Marketing, John McLeod.

While the companies said they anticipate interest among states that are Race to the Top participants, the offerings are designed to work in any educational setting anywhere in the world. "It's definitely designed for any institution to take advantage of it," said Sullivan. "The instructional improvement system portion of the Race to the Top program is really about using data to inform instruction--to make sure you're getting the right information to the right student and the right teacher at the right time. We see this Smarter Education Solution as being ideal to address the needs of those Race to the Top states, but it's absolutely applicable across any educational institution."

Implementing learning standards and outcomes at multiple levels--district, school, even course--and getting them to mesh is hard, explained Al Essa, Desire2Learn's new director of innovation and analytics strategy. For those reasons, professional services from both companies will be an essential ingredient. Essa, former associate vice chancellor and deputy CIO of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and former CIO of MIT's Sloan School of Management, noted, "There's the whole exercise in setting up a framework of learning outcomes at various levels, seeing if they're aligned and being able to track assessments against that. It's not just a matter of plugging things in and turning the button on. There is a framework and set of services that have to precede getting these reports and data."

How would the solution work within a school? As Essa explained, a teacher may be preparing curriculum that addresses specific standards. "One of the things in [the Desire2Learn] toolset is a learning object repository. So I might go to the repository not only to find materials that meet a particular curriculum need, but to make sure they meet the standards I need to comply with. If I'm the principal at the school, I'd want to look at data about assessments and learning objectives set up by all my teachers from various perspectives."

Although the companies are using K-12 terminology to describe the new set of systems, they can "very much" play a role in higher education, both insisted. "Many of our higher education SPSS clients who are using this are looking at it for enrollment management and student retention," Sullivan said. "These same tools are being used to say, who are the at-risk students, how do we keep them in school, and how do we get them to graduation?"

Although IBM is a major proponent of open source software, the company chose Desire2Learn as a partner in the endeavor because, Sullivan said, it has "best of breed" solutions and shared a vision for the way that data analytics and workflow can work with content and tools in the learning environment to help students and educators succeed.

Ultimately, she added, the new offerings are "really about delivering on the promise of how technology and digital resources can truly improve student learning and outcomes."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.