Purdue University: Leveraging Pivotal to Incorporate Real-Time Data

December 1, 2016
"The analysis of data in real-time or near real-time is important. And the infrastructure that does this, the analysis, the storage, the presentation and discovery tools—Pivotal offers all of this in its Suite. They understand the nuances of our market, the tools that are appropriate and the kind of data the market produces. We consider Pivotal a very good partner in this quest." 


Purdue University is a public university system in Indiana that was founded in 1869. Its flagship campus is located in West Lafayette, Indiana, but today the university serves nearly 75,000 students enrolled across six campuses. Purdue is lauded for its engineering, agriculture and business administration programs, as well as for its research discoveries in technology, science and more.

With a stellar academic reputation in the U.S. and around the world, Purdue University leaders are committed to taking advantage of innovation, achievement and growth to deliver higher education at the highest proven value. Embracing technology to improve teaching and overall student success is one significant way they believe they can translate their higher education commitments into reality.

“Technology is really important at Purdue. It’s what we stand for,” says Gerry McCartney, Chief Information Officer and Associate Professor of Information Technology at Purdue University. “The promise of information technology has always been the promise of data. The real impact of information technology will be from the management, processing and analysis of data in real-time or near real-time because it will give us critical decision-making capabilities.”


Help Students Preemptively Improve Decisions for More Successful Higher Education Outcomes

Purdue University is a pioneer in its efforts to incorporate big data to help students succeed academically and achieve positive higher education outcomes. In 2009, the university introduced Signals (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnbr7jPGZDY), a data-mining and analysis software program built with an easy-to-use interface that tracks student academic progress in a particular class. Signals checks more than 20 data points for a student, including quiz and test grades and time spent on tasks (reading online course materials, doing practice assignments and attending tutorial sessions). The data is compared to the results of previous students who took the class, and then the system predicts how well the current student will do in the course. As early as the end of the second week of a class, Signals can flag students who are at risk of failing. Faculty members teaching courses design the appropriate interventions, such as suggesting students come in after class, do additional reading assignments or meet with teaching assistants.

“Students love Signals. What we’ve learned from the system is that the students who are most at risk are students who have gone to less demanding high schools and are having trouble competing with students whose actual standard of work is much higher than theirs,” says McCartney. “With Signals, big data reveals issues to people that they may not be aware of so they have time to rectify them.”

While Purdue is happy with the insights achieved with Signals, the current system has some constraints. Today, it only measures performance in classes in which students are already enrolled. It doesn’t alert students ahead of time that they may not be prepared for a course or in the right college major. The fact is that many students make the mistake of picking a university simply based on location or if they know someone who goes there.

“Around something important like education, we like the idea of using even more data sources to help inform decisions and improve student success with higher education. We also like the idea of using data to help faculty teach better,” McCartney says.

He and other university leaders recently began to conceive of an enhanced academic analytics system that would incorporate more data sources and real-time analytics to generate more targeted information about students. The ultimate goal would be to improve decision-making around higher education even before a student gets to college. Such a system could preemptively help students in high school as early as 9th or 10th grade to identify their true academic strengths and the courses they need to be better prepared for in college. However, this new system would need to be built using the right suite of tools to create an infrastructure to accommodate real-time big data analytics.


Implement Pivotal Big Data Suite to Create a Next-Generation Course Analytics System

After considering a variety of options, Purdue selected Pivotal’s Big Data Suite as a foundation for its updated course analytics program because the solution meets Purdue’s real-time big data analytics requirements.

“The analysis of data in real-time or near real-time is important. And the infrastructure that does this, the analysis, the storage, the presentation and discovery tools—Pivotal offers all of this in its Suite,” says McCartney. “They understand the nuances of our market, the tools that are appropriate and the kind of data the market produces. We consider Pivotal a very good partner in this quest.”

Further, because Pivotal Big Data Suite is an integrated solution, it offers the critical functionality and reliability to streamline the management, handling and analysis of data. According to McCartney, he doesn’t have to spend time integrating disparate tools together or worrying about functionality every time new technology is introduced, which is a concern when purchasing disconnected solutions.


Enable Students to Make More Informed Decisions Before College to Ensure Success in Higher Education

Because Purdue is so committed to helping its students have the best higher education experience with the highest proven value, university leaders want to take advantage of preemptive analytics and do outreach in communities. The objective would be to contact 9th and 10th graders who may be considering studying at Purdue and use analytics to help the students be clear about their abilities and strengths and make adjustments when possible so that when it comes time to attend college, they are prepared and have the skills to succeed in their chosen majors.

Help Faculty Teach Better by Taking Advantage of Course Analytics

Applying analytics helps faculty members improve their teaching. Today, if a teacher sees from Signals that a large number of students are in danger of failing a class because they aren’t finishing assignments, the teacher can make adjustments to course material or teaching strategies to better meet the needs of those students. The system also encourages communication between faculty and students because the teacher can suggest interventions to help struggling students. This communication is likely to be further improved when the next-generation courage analytics system is introduced. The addition of new data sources will give faculty even more insights into students and their academic potential.

Provide Agile, Real-Time Access to Data to Achieve New Insights to Help Students be as Successful as Possible

With Pivotal Big Data Suite, Purdue has a platform with the power, flexibility and agility to easily incorporate a variety of new data sources in real-time for data mining to further improve student performance analytics. So, for example, the new system could incorporate door entry data. This would include tracking how many times a student goes to the library or attends a study session. According to McCartney, this data is already collected because the university has magnetic readers on the doors of important buildings, but up until now accessing the data may have been too cumbersome to have it included when evaluating student performance.


Currently, Purdue’s next generation course analytics system is being constructed, and leaders are looking forward to seeing how the updated system provides even more help to students so they can be as successful as possible with their higher education.

“The two things we care about are student success and research support, so we appreciate a single solution where there are very high levels of reliability and high levels of functional competence in the teams providing the answers,” says McCartney. “We are quite happy with the engagement we’ve had so far with Pivotal.”

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