Absolutely anything can be ‘data.’ Data are characteristics of the world around us. And as the world discovers how vital data analytics are for business, colleges and universities seek to bring this knowledge to students in any academic department where data insights matter. With modern code-free data analytics, now every future knowledge worker can add these skills their toolbelt.
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Data
Legacy data analysis focused primarily on quantitative information. Today’s methods can assess and compare qualitative features, such as customer voice, product comparisons, and geopolitical influences. Insights can reveal red flags, and predict the best opportunities to innovate.
The CSUF College of Business & Economics (CBE) understands the increasing need to equip its graduates with modern analytics knowledge. CBE Dean, Sri Sundaram, created a Task Force focused upon integrating data analytics in their curriculum, and this team connected with Alteryx, a SoCal based leading data analytics software company. Alteryx has developed a free education program called SparkED, which partners with 850+ universities in 47 countries to date. SparkED offers free software licenses, instructor training, self-paced learning paths, and certification prep.
In early 2020, CBE Accounting professor April Morris became the first to use SparkED materials in her classroom. April discovered that the types of data used to learn analytics makes a difference. Rather than using financial data, April asks her students to use the software to gain insights around environmental and societal challenges. This way, she sees better student engagement, comprehension, and retention. April said:
“For me, the key goal is to enable my students to take disorganized data and create a powerful, meaningful story. The world is full of data, some important and some not. As data analytics has evolved, so has the importance of selecting the right data – and creating a powerful view of the trends and insights – no matter if the data sets are numerical or qualitative.”
When asked about her students’ initial response to the topic, she replies honestly about a few misconceptions. Some students presume they will only work with numerical data, and that they will be required to have advanced math or programming skills. She can easily dispel these myths.
“Overcoming that hurdle in a fun way is key. I ask them what they are interested in: soccer, race cars, competitions? Understanding the diversity of data types taken from the real-world lights them up. My students get to choose the data sets they want to evaluate – from movies, sports, global warming, risk assessment, you name it. Data analytics can always provide an interesting learning curve.”
Information Systems and Decision Sciences
Dr. Rahul Bhaskar, professor, and director of the CSUF Center for Information Technology and Business Analytics (CITBA), said:
“The evolution of analytics to include qualitative as well as quantitative data types is essential. The context of any analysis is as important as the analysis itself. When students apply analytics to strategic or tactical decisions, their contextual knowledge and the tone of the responder are as essential as the trends observed in the numerical data. This allows the right decisions to be made at the right time within the proper context, even as the data shifts.”
Spreading the Word Across Campus
The CBE Task Force sought ways to expand interest and provide support for additional faculty and departments on campus. April said:
“From the School of Accountancy’s perspective, each of the professors here realize the importance of analytics to enhance future careers for graduates. In fact, analytics has become a new component of the CPA exam! That said, helping faculty members make learning it fun and interesting requires a few novel approaches. We now host an Analytics Lab, which provides tutoring to students in a vibrant learning environment. Students get genuinely excited and display a high degree of interest in this pathway. Showcasing their projects is a great way to attract new students (and faculty) who might want to explore the topic.”
Rahul adds more: “We are all working to get data analytics integrated into current classes, brand new courses as they are added, and extracurricular activities. The CITBA provides the university community with business analytics seminars, training, and ‘lunch and learn’ awareness events. It focuses on keeping topics industry relevant. We also support a student-run club that invites analytics companies and experts to train our students in technical skills, as well as the importance of soft skills for their future job roles.
“This gives us three readily available platforms for our students and other constituents: the curriculum covered in CBE classes, the training and seminars hosted by the Center, and student club activities. All of these engagements help increase adoption of this material.”
April’s graduates have indeed confirmed that adding data analytics to their transcripts gives them a leg up in the job market after graduation.
Analytics for All
Alteryx has a mission of ‘democratizing data analytics’, which CBE shares: making it accessible to everyone who wants to learn.
SparkED and CBE have built an expansion roadmap to provide additional programs, scholarships, and career mentoring, at the graduate and undergraduate levels. The number of scholarships will double each year, and the number of participating academic programs will also increase.
Advice for Other Colleges
In higher education, it is often the faculty who ultimately own the curriculum. To get started, deans and curriculum directors may need to connect with regional employers, and build a bridge with interested faculty and student leaders. Sharing the benefits for students, faculty, and hiring managers can establish a community of interest. An easy entry for the learning content can be integration into an existing program of study, rather than trying to create a whole new program. Then expand the options as demand increases.
New Way of Thinking
Modern analytics technology, like the Alteryx software platform, enables a different approach to assessing problems. Graduates claim they think differently now about designing solutions. They know that the best method is to think first, collaborate, be creative. Never rush to grab data and work it through the platform, which lets the tool drive the conversation. Instead allow the power of the platform canvas generate new ways to think about the issues first. Then dive in. If used creatively, today’s data analytics methods provide breakthrough insights, helping us increase our impact as we weave the fabric of our future.