Finding solutions for "the other ed-tech"
Since 2004, IData Incorporated has been helping colleges, universities and research institutions with custom technology solutions designed to increase productivity -- thus freeing up educators' time so they can focus their energy on student learning. Among the services that the company provides are custom application development, technology migration services and systems integration.
IData was founded by Brian S. Parish, who began his education technology career as a student system developer for an edu-tech company. Here, Parish discusses his views about the education technology space and how the work that IData does contributes to the field.
What sparked your interest in education technology?
I taught physics and algebra at a remote school in Kenya with no electricity, and then I spent six months as a substitute teacher at one of the most advanced technology schools in the United States. It was fascinating to see how the students in those very different environments were affected by technology. In many cases, the students in Kenya benefited from the focus of a teacher, a book, and a chalkboard.
What contributions have your company made to the educational technology field in terms of products and services?
Our primary focus is in what we call "the other ed-tech." This refers to all of the critical technology needed to effectively run a college or university. Higher education institutions are incredibly complex organizations where there is enormous opportunity for technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Some of these "other technologies" that are used by colleges include student information systems, financial aid, human resources, financials, alumni development, athletics, enrollment management, advising and retention, and housing. IData works to help all of these systems work more effectively through better data management, system integration and customization. We know the most effective way for a school to help a student is by having more time for direct involvement with a teacher or advisor. If IData can help eliminate or simplify any of the administrative, non-student-facing tasks at a college, we are creating more time and money to dedicate to student success.
IData is also focused on creating tools that allow for sustainable innovation in education technology. There is an increasing number of innovative edu-tech products being created as software and service solutions. However, in order for these products to be successful, they need to have simple and affordable data integration with the institution's core enterprise systems. These distributed systems also create challenges with enterprise data analysis. In order to get a full data picture of students and institutional metrics, data analysis requires a unified view across all systems. Our IDataHub System Integration platform and Data Cookbook tool for data management are designed to address these challenges and offer solutions to help sustain the ecosystem of edu-tech innovation.
In addition to products and services, what, if any, other contributions has your company made in the education technology arena?
We have worked with a number of institutions and non-profits to help them develop their own innovations. Two great examples are Georgetown University's registration bidding system and IData's pro-bono work with the Institute for the Study of Knowledge in Education (ISKME) to help build an Open Education Resource recommendation engine.
Georgetown has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the country. Some of this can be attributed to demographics, but the institution is also singularly focused on four-year completion. To this end, the university offers a unique registration process that allows students to rank desired courses based on preference. These selections are then routed to advisors for review and put into an algorithm that awards classes based on both student desire and curriculum needs. IData worked with Georgetown to build an updated version of this system for their students, and the result has allowed the university to continue to lead the country in graduation rates.
ISKME holds an annual conference called "The Big Ideas Fest," which enables educators to collaborate on solutions to real education problems. Every year, teams are selected to pilot the solutions. In 2012, IData volunteered hundreds of hours in services to one of the winning teams to develop PassionDragon.com. Passion Dragon is a revolutionary search engine for open educational resources that recommends resources for topics based on a student's interests, learning style, and learning level.
How have your company's contributions made a difference in the educational technology field?
For the last several years, IData has been preaching the value of data management in higher education. This philosophy states that the most important part of any data initiative is developing trust in the data. Schools have been spending large amounts of money on technology projects for data analysis that tend to fail due to a lack of proper understanding and trust in the data. Over the last few years, we have been thrilled to see schools beginning to join the data management bandwagon and focus more energy on efforts that help guarantee effective use of campus data.
How have they made a difference in education and the learning outcomes of students?
Better data and more efficient systems lead to better decisions by students and faculty. Better decisions lead to better outcomes.
What are your opinions about the current state of educational technology?
Education technology is very focused on the classroom and learning tools. These are great, but I think there is no replacement for a meaningful teacher-student interaction. I would encourage education technology investment to look more closely at tools that help to free more time for teaching, rather than ways to eliminate or replace it.
On a positive note, I think the advancements in information access and equity are amazing. The ability for anyone in the world to have access to open educational resources and free courses is an exciting development.
What are the current challenges in the field?
There are two big challenges. For the first time in American history, the current generation is entering the workforce less educated than the previous generation. College completion and outcomes are not keeping pace. The second major challenge is controlling college costs and managing the associated budgets. There is going to be less money to solve these completion problems.
How do these challenges affect the education system and student learning?
Institutions will need to make difficult choices on where to invest in technology solutions. These decisions need to be guided by a school's strategic plan, mission, and the interest of value to their students. One good return for a school is on having better information for decision making. If a school is armed with accurate and trusted data, leaders can make educated choices for spending, practices, and policies.
What trends have you observed in the educational technology field?
There is a cycle in educational technology for centralization and decentralization. We are in a trend right now towards decentralization. This is being driven by innovations in mobile and software as a service (SaaS) applications. Institutions are looking at more and more vendors serving their campus and much more distributed data.
How will these trends affect education as a whole?
The rise in distributed systems can lead to a lack of ability to analyze student data and a rise in system integration expenses. This can stifle initiatives for predictive analytics and data-driven decisions in education.
What are some important historical milestones in education technology?
Historically, the rise of the Learning Management System (LMS) was a big leap towards decentralized systems. This has paved the way to a recent surge of new specialized systems, such as retention, enrollment management, fundraising and now entirely-externally managed online courses and massive open online courses (MOOCs).
How did these milestones affect education and student learning?
The return on student's learning from these new decentralized products remains to be seen. However, I believe the focus on retention products is a great step forward. The worst situation for a student is to acquire college debt, but not complete a degree.
What do you think will happen in the educational technology field in the future?
If history is our only guide, there will be a return to centralized enterprise solutions in order to reduce the number of vendors and to unify data. However, data portability and data management tools like the ones IData offers can help maintain the innovative distributed ecosystem.
How will these future trends affect education as a whole?
Every shift in technology has an expense. If systems are abandoned before they can see a true return, costs will only continue to rise.
What are currently the most important ideologies in educational technology?
I believe in the concept of "appropriate technology." This is a Peace Corps term that says technology needs to be affordable, maintainable, and capable of solving real problems.
Why is this so important?
Education technology can look like a "cool shiny object," and there is great temptation to chase the next big thing. But, with limited budgets, institutions need to focus on things that actually create space, time, and opportunities for teachers to teach and students to learn.