Information Technology Services (ITS)

Business Intelligence: Impacts

Published on: April 13, 2015

The following is an excerpt from the NGSIS Impact Report, published in April 2015:

NGSIS enables students to make more informed and timely decisions about every aspect of their U of T experience, including program selection, residence life and graduation. Their decisions generate massive amounts of data which, if organized properly, can be a rich source of information for strategic planning and analysis.

That’s where business intelligence comes into the picture—these tools convert large amounts of data from multiple sources into meaningful information, allowing University administrators to make better and faster business decisions. For example, U of T business intelligence currently helps staff and faculty make fact-based decisions to improve application and admission rates, improve student retention, and refine curriculum. By using business intelligence to make informed decisions in all areas of university operations, the University can respond to the changing needs of its students and better serve its communities of stakeholders.

To make sense of the data generated by its 85,000 students, the University of Toronto Business Intelligence (UTBI) unit maintains a data warehouse—a central reporting repository—to support information analysis and reporting across the U of T system.A critical element of NGSIS, the data warehouse merges, organizes and stores data extracted from the University’s various enterprise information systems. Within the data warehouse, UTBI maintains content-specific “data marts” and tools for reporting on subject-specific areas such as admissions, student housing, course enrolment, program enrolment, procurement, human resources, research funding and graduate student support.

UTBI offers a self-service model that encourages individual users to help themselves without relying on an IT professional. Using this model, UTBI works with internal clients such as Enrolment Services which, under the leadership of Richard Levin, has adopted an evidence-based approach to decision-making that has driven the development of new business intelligence tools. Among these tools are the popular data cubes, which present data from a data mart in a web format resembling an Excel pivot table. In a data cube, users can quickly and non-destructively manipulate, filter and report on data at varying levels of detail.

A key source of student data is Degree Explorer, a core NGSIS application that allows undergraduate students to view their academic history and determine which combinations of courses will fulfill their requirements for graduation. Recently implemented, UTBI now extracts data from Degree Explorer and combines it with course and program enrolment information in the data warehouse to inform academic planning.With this information, administrators can analyze the many paths students take to complete their programs using courses both within and outside their respective divisions. For example, administrative staff can quickly determine the most common courses students are using for program completion, or see which students are over-enrolling in courses that may qualify them for program completion.

“I’m a big user of the data cubes,” says Sinisa Markovic, Assistant University Registrar. “They provide business intelligence on admissions, course enrolment and program enrolment data.”Because course enrolment changes on a daily basis, the history of students’ activity in courses, from waitlist to course completion or withdrawal, is captured and stored. This history provides a moving picture of historical trends at significant dates in the sessional calendar, Markovic explains. For example, it can provide insights into the number of students switching from a Commerce program pre-admission to an Economics or Math program post- admission.

Academic planning

As Vice-Dean, Undergraduate at UTSC until July 2013, Professor John Scherk (Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences) was an early advocate of incorporating business intelligence tools into NGSIS for long-term academic planning.

“Business intelligence directly affects faculty on the ground,” Scherk says. “We’re undertaking another academic planning cycle at UTSC, and every department has to put together a plan. We can’t plan effectively without proper business intelligence. We need accurate data about students and the courses and programs they are enrolling in, and it’s vital that we have a historical picture and not just a snapshot of one point in time.”

Academic planning is by nature a long-term process that should consider both the needs of current students and the accomplishments of alumni, Scherk says.

“When we are revising programs, we need to know what our students are doing after graduation so that we can advise our current students who need to know what their career options are,” he says.“UTSC doesn’t have the technical framework to intelligently record the activities of our alumni, and there’s a clear opportunity for NGSIS to meet an important strategic need in this area.”

 BI lifecycle diagram

Student life cycle

Few faculty members across the U of T system are more engaged in this discussion than Professor Suzanne Stevenson, the NGSIS academic lead and Vice-Dean, Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Arts & Science. A Professor of Computer Science, she oversees special initiatives for undergraduate students, as well as teaching support for undergraduates, graduate students and online learning.

“Business Intelligence is one of my favourite aspects of NGSIS,” says Stevenson. “We’ve made huge progress in this area. It used to take our registrarial staff up to a week to compile information to inform high-level decisions about programs and special initiatives.Thanks to UTBI, a task that used to take two hours might now take a couple of minutes, and something that took several days might now take a couple of hours.”

Stevenson’s academic and administrative focus on teaching and learning has strongly influenced her fundamentally people-driven approach to business intelligence. While she acknowledges the strategic importance of recruitment and enrolment data, she views this as the tip of the iceberg.

“The more we know about our students, from before they enter to after they leave, the better we can guide them while they’re here,” she says.“To me, business intelligence at Uof T is about understanding our students so we can better support their needs.We can’t improve the student experience if we don’t understand how what we’re doing affects students. Everything we do can be improved by smarter data.”

Beyond business intelligence, Stevenson believes NGSIS is part of a cultural shift at U of T that champions continuous innovation over stop-gap solutions. She is excited to see NGSIS expand its scope over time to include graduate education as well as alumni engagement.

“We should never again have a project that we have to call ‘next generation,’” she says. “Instead we should be continually innovating in our student information services to make sure we’re keeping up with our students. Things will become obsolete and we will have to replace them, but we should always be ahead of the curve in our technology services. We should always be innovating at some level.”