William D. Law Jr. was talking about “big data” before it was a buzzword. Mr. Law, president of St. Petersburg College, has long argued that colleges can improve student performance with a little number crunching, just as many businesses increase efficiency by looking for trends in all the contacts they have with their customers.
Mr. Law, 64, entered the top job at St. Petersburg three years ago with not just an interest in the topic but also a unique expertise: Back in the 1980s, he led the college’s institutional-research department, meaning he was in charge of providing achievement metrics to campus leaders.
One of his first acts as president was to push for a better way to share such numbers. Until then, to find out, say, whether students in online courses were doing as well as those in traditional settings, a dean would have to send a request to the research department and wait two to three weeks for the answer. That report might prompt a follow-up question that would take weeks more to answer. By then the semester could be over.
Mr. Law oversaw the creation of a system called Pulse, which lets him and other administrators get answers to such questions instantly, anytime, through a simple Web interface with the college’s databases. <Read more.>