Innovations Through Technology

Three schools are relying on technology to create programs that will impact their schools and the wider community.
Innovations Through Technology


THE INNOVATION: A large-scale automated follow-up system that provides benchmarks on student earnings, employment, and industry over a ten-year period.

THE SITUATION: While the public continues to debate about the ROI of higher education, CSUN has developed an approach that could settle that debate once and for all. The university has created a digital tool that tracks the careers of 95,000 CSUN students—20,000 of them from the business school. CSUN launched the project three years ago by tapping a state-level database that is part of the unemployment insurance system.

The school used records for all entering students from between 1995 and 2005 and looked up their earnings from 1993 to the present. When they exited the school, the school started to follow them quarter by quarter, tracking their inflation-adjusted earnings and industries of employment. The school then aggregated the data into usable measures—and disaggregated it to program level to allow comparison between undergraduate and graduate students according to major, career path, and other variables.

To account for everyone, researchers assigned each student to one of six categories: those who earned bachelor’s degrees from CSUN, those who attended CSUN but earned bachelor’s degrees elsewhere, those who earned graduate degrees from CSUN, those who attended CSUN but earned graduate degrees elsewhere, those who enrolled as undergraduate students but never completed degrees, and those who enrolled as graduate students but never completed degrees. To date, the project has released two waves of data, which have been used for program review and accreditation self-studies.

The Nazarian College has used some of the data in its 2014 AACSB review to show the impact the school is having on students and the local economy. The university has used the data in federal grant proposals, in programs designed to spur faculty development, and in efforts to demonstrate to policymakers the value the campus produces for the economy.

“Perhaps most important, the data are available to help students choose a major, decide if going on to graduate school is worth the cost, and understand the industries they are likely to work in if they choose a particular major,” says Richard Moore, professor of management at the Nazarian College.

CSUN plans to make the results available to the public in every state so that any U.S. school can launch similar programs. And the system is drawing some attention, says Moore. The model has been presented at the California Association of Institutional Research, and the project team is collaborating with the California State University Chancellor’s Office to explore how working while enrolled affects graduation rates, time to degree, and earnings after graduation. The team also is exploring how to expand the project to all 23 CSU campuses.

Unlike the media rankings, which focus on salary metrics, “we don’t even look at earnings until two years after students graduate, as it takes time for people to settle into a spot in the labor market,” Moore says. “What really matters is the pattern of earnings and employment over time. The gap between college graduates and others gets larger as time goes by. Getting an education puts you on a whole different trajectory. Even if you don’t earn a huge salary, you are likely to have more interesting work and be unemployed much less. You lead a different life if you have an education.”

See a data overview at For more technical information on how the project was run, visit


THE INNOVATION: t3, an interdisciplinary group that creates open-access computer programs with social impact.

THE SITUATION: In 2008, business law professor Star Swift saw the need to make information about arbitration more available to the general public, so she recruited students to help create a usable and useful website. Over time, the group evolved into the initiative called Teaching Through Technology, or t3, which includes students, alumni, and faculty working together to create opensource technology products that are free for everyone globally. All projects are web- or mobile-based, chosen for need and impact, and focused on reaching users who can benefit most.

The group finds new clients by advertising with Google AdWords, using an annual Google grant of US$500,000 that funds free web-based ads. Students comb analytics to determine who’s seeing the ads, who’s using the website, and what key words will attract more users. Says Swift, “We’ve learned that the use of our products goes up when we have creative ads that lead users to excellent content. This may seem like a simple concept, but it took us a bit to put the idea into practice.” Today, she says, t3 sites have more than 2 million impressions per month.

Everyone on the team votes on whether to accept new projects. Once a project is accepted, some team members start designing the app, some research keywords and designs for the ad campaign, and some analyze data to determine which cities and countries would be most receptive to the ad campaign.

In the past year, t3 has created a range of projects from the ambitiously global to the intensely local. For instance, one project was “A Midwife’s Guide,” available as both a mobile application and an e-book. It was created after a physician practicing in Malawi, Africa, requested a guide to teach women the basics of delivering babies.

“She didn’t even know what a mobile app was, but she knew women needed to be able to download medical information onto a cell phone because they did not have Internet service except in the big city,” says Swift. To date, almost 52,000 users have downloaded the app and 34,000 have accessed the e-book. The largest concentrations of users have been in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, South Africa, the U.K., Bangladesh, and Kenya.

On the other end of the spectrum was the anyBody’s App, created at the request of the Equity and Inclusion Department of the university. The purpose was to provide a guide that would allow anyone on campus to find a single-stall bathroom.

For their work on t3, students receive at least three credits and as many as six if they are part of the Honors College program and required to have a junior and senior project. They must pay for the credits, though they do the t3 work for free. Swift also tries to make sure each student speaks at one conference and writes one paper for journal publication.

Currently the group comprises seven students (from majors ranging from finance to MIS), five alumni, the director of the digital studio on campus, and Swift. To replace students who graduate, Swift invites students from her classes to think about joining; group members vote on which applicants to accept.

Students in t3 develop skills in technology and teamwork, as well as “an appreciation for the need of an integrated focus to create solutions,” says dean Diana Lawson. Just as valuable, they learn the power of creating measurable value in the real world. As one alum who recently joined a team meeting put it, “I like my work but I miss the passion of t3. Even after you graduate, you will find that you are always thinking about the projects.”

Learn more about t3 and its recent projects at See a video about t3 made for a Google Conference by a film student when he was a member of the team at


THE INNOVATION: An advanced analytics program that allowed undergraduates to identify impoverished secondary school students in Bolivia.

THE SITUATION: Since 2003, Saint Joseph’s University has had a strong relationship with Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit-sponsored network of more than 400 schools in Bolivia. Early in the fall 2015 school term, SJU received a request from the organization, asking for help analyzing a survey in which nearly 300 Bolivian students answered 22 questions about their lives. Based on this data, the organization wanted to identify the most impoverished high school students so it could gear its outreach efforts to those in greatest need—for instance, students who were living without electricity or water and who only had minimal daily meals. The organization also wanted the analysis to be ready in six weeks.

It was the perfect project for the introduction to data mining course in SJU’s Business Intelligence & Analytics program. While the class exposes students to data mining tools through textbooks, problems, videos, and case studies, the Fe y Alegría survey provided a real-world case study that allowed students to make connections between topics they’d covered in the classroom and techniques for working with actual data.

To provide the analysis, students critiqued the survey, cleaned the data, identified the most helpful questions through principal component analysis, tested different socio-economic grouping levels using cluster analysis, calculated a dependent variable based on the clusters, defined coefficients for the most meaningful questions, and tested the model. They presented their final model to members of the Fe y Alegría organization during a full-class Skype session, which was translated into Spanish by a bilingual student who was a Business Intelligence major. Other bilingual students provided written and verbal translation throughout the project.

By analyzing survey data in this way, students got a chance to apply concepts they’d learned in class to a real-world case study. “Whenever new concepts were taught in class, students quickly made connections between these topics and the Bolivian survey projects,” says assistant professor Kathleen Campbell. “Students were energized by the opportunity to work with real data and by the realization that their efforts could help impoverished children in need. They were so engaged in the initial analysis that they requested the opportunity to follow the project through to its conclusion.”

Follow-up is occurring on a number of fronts. Student Christine Wolf is using an independent study class to refine the initial predictive model and hopes to write about it in an academic paper. In addition, students in successive Business Intelligence classes will continue to work on the project as Fe y Alegría provides them with updated data. The school also is investigating other possible applications of the methodology.

Says Joseph DiAngelo, dean of the Haub School, “This program ties closely to our mission as a Jesuit university and brings a special type of impact that ‘makes the world a better place.’”

An article about the partnership appears in International Transactions in Operational Research at For more information about the organization, visit