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Shift or Shrink: What Business & Higher Education Must Learn from NFL’s NextGen Stats Revolution

I’ve been an avid National Football League (NFL) fan since the Dolphins went undefeated in 1972. For 30 of those years, I served business and higher education, retiring recently as a Campus President. Whether you are a fan or not, we can learn a lot from this league’s recent commitment to deep analytics. As leaders and practitioners in business and education, most of us are aware of the importance of statistics as we continue to improve business and industry products and services as well as student success and addressing equity and inclusion. We’ve been looking to our metrics throughout the decades. So, what’s so special about the NFL and their recent evolution to what they call “Next Gen Stats?” With an estimated fan base of 200 million worldwide, one could argue they are 10 times the size of all higher education in the US alone. When they partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) they set the goal to engage every fan, in every game, in every play!

Let me say that again…the NFL has set the lofty goal to leverage deep analytics to engage every fan, in every game, on every play. Clearly, they don’t think they can immerse their millions of fans that deeply. But make no mistake…they understand and value engagement. You see, it’s a question of probability. They have embraced the fact that if you have deep analytics powered by Machine Learning, you have a higher probability of winning the game…and engaging fans! The NFL has lately taken to calling this “Stat That.” In our world of higher education we derive, maintain, and compile our own deep analytics with the similar goal of helping every student succeed. But what would happen in a new landscape of higher ed where every student was tracked across every learning object, every day?

Higher Education in particular must adjust. It’s not enough to generate grade warnings and place students on probation when they drop below a GPA threshold…too little…too late. It’s not enough to encourage our faculty to design courses with formative and summative assessments that function similarly, automating alerts when students miss key assignments or perform poorly on a major exam. These alerts and warnings go out so often in the wrong format (e-mails) to an audience engaged on far different platforms. Until we set the goal of engaging every student, across every learning object, and generate and share those predictive analytics with those students in the form of “nudges” we are missing a major opportunity to engage that base.

Such a shift across all courses for all students would take years! Happily, modern Learning Management Systems (LMS) are well designed to begin this journey and the recent mass migration to “remote learning” brought on by the global pandemic has changed core assumptions. As the consumer and media markets further deploy these analytics and take personalization to unprecedented levels, so too must higher education. In the post-pandemic world student assumptions have changed as well. Personally, I don’t see students as customers, or fans. I am sold on the engagement aspect. We would do well to optimize every learning opportunity for each one as we continue to press for equity and inclusion.

Across our increasingly diverse base of stakeholders, we need more and more data. Imagine a world where every student has no less than eight diverse ways to achieve each learning outcome. Further, envision that the way each student succeeds across different learning objectives is tracked for patterns of preferences. Your institution’s LMS works with the Learning Object Repository (LOR) and the layer of analytics (ideally designed by your faculty) to serve target objects to target students each day. Students receive daily “nudges” across communication platforms they value. Faculty enjoy more time to design engaging learning experiences as the LMS/LOR personalize course experiences (again…across a taxonomy owned by faculty). Administrators celebrate increases in retention and attainment (and if your unions and/or senate are on the ball an appreciable percentage of these gains are reflected in instructional and other pay scales). If this sounds like utopia read on…

As I left my role as Campus President in south Florida, we were investing in the redesign of over 300 courses focused on one objective: deeper levels of student engagement by design. Faculty were compensated for this redesign to assure ownership. Each learning object was “curated” for engagement. At another college I loaded my faculty based on class size, with automated course elements (again…designed and/or selected by faculty) yielding class sizes determined by faculty according to their chosen level of engagement (aligned with union requirements). At yet another college, our Faculty Senate approved a rubric for all online courses setting class sizes across five “Levels of Engagement.” My point here is that this journey is not only already underway, but also leading us to the inevitable goal of what I call “Ultra-Personalization” (every student, every object, every day).

As you work with your colleagues, unions, leadership, and even legislators you will invariably become engaged in this work toward “Ultra-Personalization” across higher education. In our post pandemic reality amidst a long overdue focus on equity and inclusion, we need such systemic solutions more than ever. Deep analytics can not only tell the NFL the “completion probability” of a given receiver on any down and distance. Deep analytics can tell us the “attainment probability” of any student on any given day. We can then derive intervention taxonomies based on predictive analytics and engage those students before they reach a turning point. Sometimes it’s academic ability or another opportunity to achieve a learning outcome a bit differently. It could be that the course was being presented in a manner that didn’t make sense to them given their cultural background and relative diversity origin. Perhaps they need a micro-loan or gas card. Maybe a bit of counselling at just the right moment or help with childcare. Or they just might benefit from consistent nudges gradually pushing them to higher levels of maturity and responsibility. It all begins with increased engagement.

Whatever the barrier to their success…believe me…you can “Stat That…”

Dr. Stephen W. Dunnivant recently retired after 30 years of teaching and leadership across public and higher education. He is the co-author of The Herd: How to Leverage the Absolute Power of Organizational Culture and has presented at numerous national education and economic development conferences. You can reach him at for comments and further

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