Worldwide explosion of data raises key challenges of collecting relevant data, deriving insights and turning them into value-adding actions. This is the essence of Business Intelligence and Analytics (BI&A). There is a worldwide shortage of skilled professionals in this area, especially among business professionals. Compared to data scientists and IT professionals, business users at all organisational levels require simple-to-use, but effective tools to explore data in a more intuitive way. Consequently, visual analytics (VA) has been identified as one of the most important future trends in BI&A.
In response to industry demand, universities are also increasing their BI&A courses. However, a very recent worldwide survey of industry practitioners, conducted by the academic leaders of the largest international community of BI&A educators (called Teradata University Network), confirmed that the biggest problem with BI&A education today is in studentsâ lack of real-world experience. Traditional case studies, widely used by business educators, are simply not sufficient to prepare VA students for yet-to-be invented information environments of the future.
Inspired by the challenge of creating industry-informed real-world experience, this applied research project offers an innovative method of âtranslatingâ leading industry practices (practitioner stories) in using Visual Analytics into innovative learning activities for business students. The main idea here is to enable them to develop the required skills as well as the âmind-setâ to tackle the types of problems that leading VA industry practitioners are dealing with. The resulting innovative learning activities are then captured and described as high-level learning designs, using a method also invented in this project, based on the educational theory of learning designs. To facilitate knowledge sharing and innovation, these learning designs are then stored in an online (open) repository of innovative practices and made available to other educators to use, learn from each other, and continue to innovate.
Informed by the latest industry developments in Visual Analytics and the main challenges of BI&A educators (as reported in three international academic surveys conducted by the Teradata University Network www.teradatauniversitynetwork.com), this applied design research project focuses on the following objectives:
Objective 1: To invent a scientific method of translating leading industry practices in VA into innovative learning activities suitable for business students with limited BI&A skills.
It is not realistic to recreate real-life organizations in classrooms due to the complexities of organizational contexts (e.g. organizational culture, formal roles and responsibilities for data-informed decisions). Instead, the main idea is to design, implement and evaluate a method of: a) deriving the underlying patterns of problems that industry practitioners are using VA to explore and solve; and b) combining these patterns into innovative learning activities (i.e. business scenario) thus exposing business students to the same types of problems.
Objective 2: To implement and evaluate the resulting learning activities in class, in order to confirm their effectiveness.
The effectiveness of the resulting learning activities (in terms of student learning in VA) was confirmed, using a research-based method, also invented in this project.
Objective 3: To design and evaluate a method of documenting these learning activities so they can be shared with, reused by, and expanded by other BI&A educators.
The invented method, founded in the educational theory of learning designs, enabled the innovative learning activities to be documented in a flexible way. The main idea is to provide guidance (how to do it) rather than prescriptions (what to do) to other educators. The resulting conceptual designs were then stored in an open online (wikispaces) repository and made available to other interested educators to re-use, expand and combine in new ways.
This project was guided by the principles of action design research. Inspired by the needs to offer a relevant and realistic learning experience, we started this project by focusing on a set of published case studies provided by two industry leaders in VA. We downloaded a large number of customer-success stories (over 60 industry cases) from vendors' web sites (SAS VA and Tableau). We chose the vendor companies among widely recognized analytical leaders in visual analytics (as per 2014 Gartner's Magic Quadrant report on BI&A platforms).
After the customer success stories were collected, we proceeded to analyse them using the following research questions as lens.
- Who is using VA and for what purpose?
- What types of decisions do they make?
- What are their current challenges related to VA?
- What are the new opportunities created by VA?
- What are the required skills for using VA?
The analysis of practitioner stories enabled us to identify high-level patterns of problems suitable for VA use, across customer stories. The following list illustrates some examples of these patterns:
1. Data in organizational silos
2. Different sources of data
3. Data quality issues
4. Collaboration to combine different perspectives
5. Challenges of combining and reconciling different disciplinary insights and perspectives in order to propose an action
6. Need to use storytelling to communicate the findings and intended action.
These patterns were used as foundation for realistic scenarios (educational stories), with the main objective to expose students to the same types of challenges facing industry leaders in VA.
The resulting scenarios were represented as conceptual learning designs (using educational Learning Design theory) and stored in an open online wiki-based repository to facilitate their sharing with, and reuse by other educators.
This project was implemented during 2013 and 2014 and was fully funded by a large (highly competitive) government grant, provided by the Australian Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) http://www.olt.gov.au/grants-and-projects
All project outcomes were implemented in the applicant's undergraduate and postgraduate classes offered to business students with no prior background in BI&A. All activities were extensively evaluated, using scientific methods from the fields of educational research, BI&A and design research.
This project continues to create numerous opportunities for engagement with industry practitioners as well as international community of BI&A educators.
In addition to analyzing practitioner stories, at the later stages, this project also involved interviews of VA industry practitioners across different industry sectors (e.g. education, health, retail).
The resulting innovative method of educating VA practitioners was also presented at different industry forums and showcased in different industry publications (see project attachments).
The outcomes of this applied research continued to be reported to and shared with the BI&A academic community, via academic publications and conference presentations as well as via online (open) repository of innovative learning designs (also created in this project).
Apart from excellent student learning outcomes in both undergraduate and postgraduate classes, this innovative project and its outcomes continue to attract the attention of BI&A educators, educational researchers and industry practitioners.
Students' learning experience:
The postgraduate unit (Managing Business Intelligence) in which this project was first implemented, received the highest student evaluation (100% out of 100%) in Semester 1, 2013 and consequently was awarded the Business School Dean's citation award. Subsequently, I also received the very prestigious University of Sydney Business School Wayne Lonergan Award for Outstanding teaching in 2013.
Educational research excellence:
My research paper "From Practitioner Stories to Learning Designs" in which I describe this project and the main outcomes, received two major awards, as follows.
First of all, it was awarded the best paper award at the International Academy for Information Management SIG-ED Conference in New Zealand in Dec 2014.
The same paper was then nominated by the conference chairs and later awarded the best paper in Information Systems (IS) education award, across all International and Regional conferences in IS (American Information Systems Conference AMCIS2014; International Information Systems Conference ICIS2014; European Information Systems Conference ECIS2014; Pacific-Asia Information Systems Conference PACIS2014 and Australian Information Systems Conference ACIS2014). The paper is provided with this application.
The innovative methods of translating industry practices and educating business students to use VA as âthinking toolsâ rather than presentation tools have attracted the attention of industry leader in VA (SAS). For example, my method of using VA with business students has been showcased in SAS IQ Quarter 4 industry magazine with international readership of over 60.000 industry practitioners (provided with this application).
Other forms of recognition:
This project was supported by the Australian Office for Teaching and Learning (OLT) Grant: Enhancing Collaborative Learning in Information Systems Business Analytics Using Data Visualisation and Manipulation techniques. This is a highly competitive government grant, considered to be the most prestigious education grant in Australia.
The next phase will include international collaboration with other educators interested in co-design, implementation and evaluation of innovative learning activities in Visual analytics. This is expected to result in new learning designs that will be shared with a wider community of educators (via the online repository) so we can continue to innovate together and educate the next generation of VA-skilled business and other professionals.
Possible applications of VA are by no means limited to the business domain. Therefore, I plan to expand this project beyond business school to include educators from other domains (social sciences, arts, medicine, engineering). Through collaborative design of innovative VA learning activities suitable for these teaching disciplines, together with domain experts from these areas, I aim to create new and exciting opportunities for their students to work in the fast-approaching future of big data.