Over the past four weeks at Marshall University, I have embarked on a transformative journey in the realm of data reporting and visualization, leveraging the powerful capabilities of Microsoft’s PowerBI. It’s not only been transformative for looking at enrollment but it’s transformed many of my own thought processes. When I was hired in July, I had planned to revamp much of the reporting I had been providing (lists, simple counts, not a lot of filters) and was waiting on data governance to select a path forward for reporting and visualization. All the while, I was dabbling with PowerBI.
I finally decided to put my foot on the gas, and I developed my first simple report focusing on our enrollment data. That simple report immediately gave inspiration, stoked the fire and the foot slammed to the floor. The new IR Factbook now contains eleven (11) enrollment reports, five (5) graduate reports, two (2) student grade reports, and two (2) applicant/admit reports, all created within the last 4 weeks. What I thought would be a difficult and tedious process has become second-hand and my wife has even called PowerBI my new-found love.
Last week I alluded to having “learned more in four months than I had in the last 10 years when it comes to advanced SQL, PowerBI, and a thought process for processing data” and it’s truly been enlightening. Embarking on this journey of visual data analysis has opened my eyes to a new way of understanding our data. I have taken apart the process, piece by piece, to determine the best way to reshape our operational Banner data into a visually friendly format that uses the same format (template) and slicers. This has included a comprehensive engineering of a set of overnight Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) procedures that copy data from our production Banner database to a set of intermediary tables, setting the stage for PowerBI integration. My software engineering and database background have been instrumental in designing appropriate schemas to include in our data models in PowerBI.
The remainder of this blog post aims to share insights into how PowerBI can revolutionize institutional data and the impact data visualization is already and will have in pivotal decision-making.
Why Visualize Data with PowerBI?
Data visualization is more than just a trend as it is a necessity in today’s data-driven world. PowerBI, with its intuitive interface and robust features, turns complex data sets into understandable and actionable insights. For decision-makers, this means:
- Enhanced Understanding: Visual data is processed 60,000 times faster by the brain than text.
- Quick Decision-Making: Instantly grasp trends, patterns, and outliers by using data slicers and drill-down capabilities to “see” the data.
- Interactive Reporting: Dynamic and real-time updates foster proactive decision-making.
- Tailored Communication: Customizable dashboards cater to diverse stakeholder needs.
The Last Four Weeks with PowerBI and Enrollment Data
This overview obviously does not encapsulate the hours dedicated to learning the fundamentals and subtleties of PowerBI.
In the pursuit to refine my approach to data reporting, the primary objective was to create a seamless integration of enrollment data from Banner to have access to key metrics the Provost likes to present to the President’s Cabinet. To achieve this, I first took existing queries that I was using to generate a single-page report and tapped into the powerful capabilities of PowerBI’s data connectors. These tools allowed us to efficiently combine information from our student information system and data warehouse into one unified platform. The result of this action was the creation of a comprehensive data model to which one of my colleagues noted I was doing too much. I took that as a compliment. This model provides us with a complete and detailed perspective of our enrollment metrics, presenting them in a way that is both accessible and actionable. It represented a significant step forward in our data strategy, enhancing our ability to understand and respond to the dynamics of student enrollment effectively. This first enrollment report also opened my eyes to how row-level data is better for ingestion into PowerBI because of the power of slicers.
The mission was to construct A SINGLE interactive and informative dashboard that could transform raw data into strategic insights. To fulfill this, I embarked on a project to develop a single, maybe two reports that could be used in a dashboard. What emerged was a series of multifaceted dashboards that highlight crucial metrics such as enrollment trends, demographic distributions, course grades, and renewal rates. I had inspiration from my work over the years on what decision-makers need and what our current leadership likes to leverage, but I was off and running. What was supposed to be a couple of reports turned into a massive number of reports in a single PowerBI app as mentioned above. The endeavor required meticulous planning and execution, leading to the creation of user-friendly dashboards. These dashboards can now serve as a window into the lifeblood of the institution, providing real-time, actionable insights into the characteristics and performance of our student population and where our students graduate from. This will be a game-changer, allowing for a more dynamic and responsive approach to managing and leveraging enrollment data and will serve as the basis for our program health check dashboards.
Weeks 3 and 4:
Upon the completion of the data models and first set of reports, the focus shifted to establishing nightly processes and meticulously documenting the repositories of our data and reports. This necessary groundwork organized our data flow and sparked an initiative to expand our reporting capabilities.
The core objective was to develop dashboards that were not just interactive, but also rich in information and easily navigable. To bring this vision to life, I developed a suite of dashboards, each tailored to illuminate key aspects of our academic landscape—enrollment patterns, demographic details, program demand, applicant demographics/trends, student retention data, same-day enrollment comparisons, and much more. The process has involved both creative and analytical skills to ensure the dashboards would serve as more than just data displays; they are to become essential tools for real-time decision-making.
The outcome of this concerted effort has been a collection of user-friendly dashboards. They act as a dynamic interface, offering immediate and insightful snapshots of our student body and the performance of our programs. This development has not only satisfied my initial goal but also paved the way for further innovations in data reporting and analytics.
Impact and Future Directions
The past four weeks have been monumental in shaping our data reporting and visualization landscape. Once I developed a PowerBI template and changed my own mindset from individual, list-based reports to how data can be used visually, the game changed. The transformation is nothing short of revolutionary for me. I have witnessed a dramatic uptick in efficiency, with the time it takes to generate reports shrinking from several hours or days down to mere minutes or hours. I laughed early last week thinking about how much more productive I could have been over the years if my thought processes had aligned in this manner earlier in my career. This will foster a data-driven culture on campus where data is not just available but integral to our everyday decision-making, and most importantly, understandable by anyone using the tools.
Looking forward, I am not content. I am already charting a course for the future, which involves delving into the realm of predictive analytics and artificial intelligence within PowerBI. The aim is to harness these advanced technologies to predict enrollment trends, thereby positioning Marshall University not just to respond to the present but to strategically plan. This foresight will undoubtedly be a cornerstone in maintaining and enhancing the vitality and relevance of our academic programs.
PowerBI has revolutionized my approach to data and reinforced the importance of data visualization in decision-making. By turning raw data into visually appealing and easy-to-understand formats, we are unlocking new potential in understanding and utilizing our enrollment data. The journey ahead is exciting as we continue to explore the vast possibilities of PowerBI in transforming data into one of our strongest assets at Marshall University.
To enhancing our analysis with PowerBI and data!
Brian M. Morgan
Chief Data Officer, Marshall University