How the University of California System is Using Data to Help Students Learn

University of California’s Tom Andriola transforms higher education and healthcare with data analytics

Tom Andriola regularly says he has the best IT job in the world.

With an information technology community of close to seven thousand people, the University of California system is larger than many IT companies. The diversity and scale of efforts rival that of any global multinational company—cybersecurity, medical imaging diagnosis algorithms, deep-machine learning applications, agricultural resource algorithms, and much more—all under the umbrella of one university system. “Universities are hubs of new ideas and fresh thinking,” says Andriola, the university’s vice president and CIO. He works under the premise of “letting a thousand flowers bloom.” As a former business leader from the world of healthcare IT, Andriola brings insights from his business experience to support the university and its stakeholders, patients, students, faculty, and staff through the use of data.

Although the challenges presented by a system of research institutions might seem different from those of a business, Andriola draws upon his experience creating new products and reaching new markets from his years at Philips Healthcare to identify and scale the most successful projects at the university.

“We try to find the best innovations and scale them in the way that a private company would,” Andriola explains. “Scaling could mean turning a successful service into a shared service for stakeholders across the university. It could also mean offering a service we’ve created to the outside market, like other universities and hospitals throughout the country.”

“If seven thousand people every day came to the university trying to innovate around the mission, think about the positive impact we could make in the lives of students, patients, faculty, and the citizens of the world.”

Take CropManage, for example. What began as faculty research into water and fertilizer utilization is now a software resource that helps manage crops in the drought-stricken state of California. CropManage started as a series of algorithms to provide insight for growing lettuce and alfalfa, but it’s now being expanded to growers across the state to manage water and soil nutrients for a variety of crops. Research that addresses California’s drought exemplifies the way in which Andriola helps take a project from the university to scale.

“It’s all based on technology and data,” Andriola says. “We both lead agriculture research and work closely with the grower community, putting us in the unique position to do innovative work and then spread it. While you might consider agriculture an old industry, technology and data have come to the forefront of innovation. That’s why the CIO role has become so much more strategic to the university.”

Coming from the business world to the higher education environment may not be the most obvious progression, but Andriola finds that the path of an innovator isn’t always a linear, single-track journey. “My career has been less of a ladder climb and more of swinging from vine to vine on a rock climb,” Andriola says. “To do something at the scale of the University of California is the type of challenge I wanted to sink my teeth into.”

Given his background in healthcare IT and growth markets, Andriola was not well-versed in the student success component of the UC mission. However, it’s become one of his greatest passions.

In the same way Andriola has championed using technology and data to transform patient care, he supports efforts that help students grow to their full potential and succeed in their academic journey. Universities have the ability to aggregate large amounts of data, both formal and informal, relevant to student success and retention, so the big question is how and when to use that data—or whether to use it at all.

“Today’s student population grew up with technology in the palm of their hand and accessed it with their fingertips as often as a keyboard,” Andriola says. “Mobility is not an option, but rather a way of life. They share their lives through various social media outlets, which gives us clues about what’s going on with their world and how they’re progressing. All this self-reported data adds to the formal mechanisms we’ve used for their profile. We sometimes collectively call this their digital footprint or, to steal a healthcare term, the quantified self.”

In education, Andriola has to consider many questions, including how to organize this data, what the appropriate uses are, how to leverage data science and machine learning, and whether to use opt-in or opt-out strategies. With all of this, he also has to consider big data techniques to help each and every student succeed.

The University of California has 238,000 students, and they all have their own unique needs. Andriola equates this to healthcare population management strategies, like managing diabetes. He uses both formal data, like in health records, and self-reported data, like the findings of a Fitbit. The university has formal data from student systems and learning management systems, but Andriola thinks more self-reported data could be leveraged. Through this approach, the university has been increasingly able to deliver information, helpful hints, and reminders to the student on their mobile phones.

The university can help keep students on schedule with everything from assignments and advisor meetings to self-care tips about healthy eating and sufficient rest. “This is just the start from my perspective,” Andriola says. “As more machine learning and artificial intelligence applications find their way into education, I think we create the opportunity to transform the student experience and success rates. Our faculty has shown great interest in this as a research topic, and that will lead to the faculty leading the innovation cycle. We CIOs need to be right there with them for the journey.”

Because Andriola understands the innovation cycle and can see the growing strategic role for the IT community, he knows IT must be ready to embrace the challenge of leadership. Two years ago, his office reached out to the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley to build an IT Leadership Academy focused on innovation, collaboration, and leadership. Jointly taught by Haas faculty and CIO practitioners, thirty-five students every year get a first-class professional development experience, taught by some of the brightest minds in one of the nation’s leading business schools. They’ve started referring to it as the nano-MBA because the program’s content is more about strategic thinking and behavioral modeling than anything IT. Ultimately, the academy is about preparing the university’s IT leaders to be innovation partners and create new career trajectories.

“In the end, it’s all about growth. Growing crops, growing minds, growing careers—it’s all the same,” Andriola says. “Create the right culture and environment, introduce the right content and a little bit of structure, and then step back and watch it happen. Like I always say when I talk to our community, ‘If seven thousand people every day came to the university trying to innovate around the mission, think about the positive impact we could make in the lives of students, patients, faculty, and the citizens of the world.’”