Better Together

An extremely inspiring post

In-depth with big-hearted Mark Milliron of Civitas Learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Editor’s note: For one of the fastest-growing edtech companies in higher education, we’ve dug deep and present here one of our most in-depth interviews. Enjoy!

Dr Mark David Milliron Civitas Learning.jpg

A first-generation college student, Mark David Milliron came from a family of nine kids, with an African American brother, Native American brother, Korean sister—in total, 25 foster children, and was the first one to go on a higher education journey. It could have gone differently, but it hasn’t. Decades later, he’s doing what he knows how to do. And he’s doing it well: he’s bringing together the best of emerging technology, data science, and design thinking to help students learn well and finish strong. Today, Mark David Milliron, Ph.D., (pictured) as Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Civitas Learning, helms one of higher education’s fastest-growing startup companies. An award-winning leader, author…

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Did I Just See You “Hardcode” a Salesforce ID? Aw, Hell No!

How Should Higher Ed Leaders Think About Data?

Written and Published by Gordon Freedman,
President at National Laboratory for Education Transformation

There used to be a time when you would call your stockbroker and they would tell you what to do with your money, no questions asked. You can still do this, but there is such an abundance of financial, market and political data now that many people can play their own hand in the market with plenty of electronic guidance. Or you can buy into an indexed mutual fund where finely tuned algorithms are doing their work in the background, and you just choose your level of risk tolerance.

What you know, reliably, is that investments in companies in almost every sector of the economy—tech, industrial, healthcare, consumer, financial and real estate—are maximizing their businesses with the latest technology, data science, artificial intelligence and customer analysis, and all the other levers that operate modern society and the economy.

Unfortunately, this is far from the case in higher education where we are squarely in the technology and data dark ages, a good ten years behind the corporations we are supposedly preparing students to be employed by. The separation is growing daily. This is deeply sensed by students who see an expanding chasm between their personal and social electronic life and campus operational eccentricities that cost them time, money, connectivity and poor visibility into their futures.

The point is not that colleges and universities should operate exactly like businesses, but that they should examine their plant, equipment, hiring, customer care and automation investments through similar lenses, because we live in an era with extraordinary tools.

Who Owns the Data Responsibility?

This kind of analysis is not something a CIO’s office or hired consultancy can do by itself. Leadership must invest time and energy and try to think about these issues, starting from a blank slate about how to best serve their constituencies, students in particular.

Unfortunately, many presidents, provosts and cabinet members are confronted with an array of data and technology products, mostly from vendors, and are asked to read through internal recommendations and external consultant reports about technology and data products and services, and simply ratify choices between competing products or services. I won’t go through the names of the companies in student information system (SIS), learning management system (LMS), student success, student lifecycle and data analytics spaces because competent people can choose between these alternatives.

What I will do is:

a) Question the premise of the categories of products and services that are being sold

b) Ask how and why institutions buy them and who the campus buyers are

c) Find out what the institutions and students receive in demonstrable value from these categories of products and services.

Legacy “Stretch”

Circa 2017, higher education leaders should be well beyond simply choosing between existing products and services that are presented to them. Instead, they should be asking, what does the institution actually need to do to be more successful, what does success look like, and how can they look beyond the current vendor mix for better fitting solutions.

The corporate sectors mentioned above, including healthcare, are far beyond what I would call “legacy stretch” and deeply into consumer, client and supply chain data automation. Legacy stretch means moving from tools that were once on paper, then on floppy disks, next on the campus backbone and now in the Cloud. Because these systems are in the Cloud does not make them modern, data-rich or machine learning-capable. It simply means they have been stretched from physical products or services to their digital or remotely hosted counterparts.

The other sectors went far beyond the “stretch” to completely redesign from the bottom up. In this case, bottom up means starting with the student and what is needed and meaningful to them, which ultimately affects the institutional bottom line.

For all the talk about student-centric, student-lifecycle and student-success models on the campus, the stark reality is that compared to their corporate and consumer counterparts, campuses concentrate more time on their internal structures and its issues than they do on their students (customers). And it’s not the fault of the campus alone; that behavior is also baked into the current technology products and services that are sold to each separate buying silo on campus.

If only 60 percent of faculty use an LMS, which is about the national norm, then buying student success solutions that are dependent on data feeds from the LMS and SIS might not be the smartest thing to do because the data flow is inhibited by the limited and irregular use of the LMS on campus and the inherent limitations of the SIS.

Similarly, the SIS is not a data-smart system across student functions. If it were, it would be able to machine-read the content in courses and assessments, in campus services, career counseling and provide reliable feeds of information and analyses to students, faculty and administrators—just like Facebook and Snapchat do for their users and advertisers.

Manufacturing Confusion for Students

Instead, the burden is on student to get electronic messages from four or five different places on campus and from a number of offices scattered across campus they are supposed to visit physically. But without a coherent, data-rich, electronic tether, the college experience for students begins to fade in relevance, value and connectivity. A campus can bulk up on success systems, but if each one does not bring more clear day-to-day experience and ease of navigation to students, then the value of such systems should be questioned.

No commercial or consumer company would make the bar so high for its customers or clients. Instead, they go out of their way to remove these barriers day in and day out. However, the existing structures on campuses make the kind of re-engineering corporations went through almost impossible because of academic governance, the culture of committees, and the inability to have a single point of electronic contact with students.

What Leaders Should Know

So, what should a higher education leader know today about data systems and data?

  • Campus products and services are antiquated because they are not moving toward merging capabilities into single, data-rich systems.
  • The new, large analytics, student lifecycle managers, and customer relationship management (CRM) players are interesting and much more, data wise, but their success relies largely on the use of legacy-stretched systems.
  • If dropout rates are north of 25 percent, your institution is failing behind in ways that require new kinds of thinking and new tools, not shifting deck chairs.

Ultimately, the data needs to flow from various campus services to be integrated at the level of student-controlled primary accounts that students control and into which official feeds come with more reliable information on each student. Then that account can provide reliable data back to the campus.

As it stands now, there are:

a) The legacy-stretched traditional core campus players (LMS, SIS),

b) The fill-in-the-gaps and the pick-up-the-slack new analytics players (Civitas, EAB and Hobsons)

c) The student or customer lifecycle managers designed specifically for higher education, alongside newcomers that have crossed over from the commercial world (SalesForce, Workday)

But the lifecycle managers are not silver bullets for a simple reason. The solutions that will drive change, keep students in college and connect into the workforce, by definition, have to be student-owned and operated, just like every other social media app where engagement is authentic. Silicon Valley is not up to this challenge and few others are because it is complicated.

The Future: Better-Connected Students

Where is the future that will genuinely connect students to their academic life on one hand and their future work and career on the other? There are several bright spots including the drift toward more comprehensive student lifecycle management that involves students directly.

  • Cambridge, MA start-up PragyaSystems has taken their knowledge of the LMS, SIS and other campus systems and created “Learning Streams” that pass each students data from all systems and runs it through IBM Watson so Big-Data analysis can be applied at the student level to bridge learning and earning. (Disclosure, the author was a consultant for Pragya).
  • Austin, TX, University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning,, is at the other end of the spectrum, where the UT System’s upper management is fully behind completely rebuilding the technology to meet the K-to-work needs of Texas. The effort incorporates flagship involvement from SalesForce and novel building of new student transcript systems using BlockChain technology.

Luckily, the UT System has the funds and mission for actual student-up transformation that re-organizes all of their work as a system serving campuses. But for a startup or a system to break laterally into the individual college or university technology stack and academic administration is not easy, largely because there is not a high-level owner in an institution that owns student data throughout the student lifecycle.

The institutional breakdown is that there are silo-based buyers who work cooperatively with the CIOs office on purchases, but no overall high-level steward to make sure all the solutions are properly harnessed for student learning and completion outcomes.

The nonprofit I run has been in constant dialogue with many institutional leaders, technology providers, publishers, researchers and startups inside and outside of higher education. Our mission is to open up the dialogue that will involve students directly as a strategy for student and institutional survival. This redesign and is needed now. It should be a priority.

What Can Leaders Do?

What can leadership do?

  • Put out the word that you want the next-level conversations to occur.
  • Band together, have the forums, attract participants outside campus tech, have campus tech and data solutions make the student experience generalized across multiple solutions.
  • Bring students in to talk about the single app to connect their learning, support and career possibilities.
  • Build the specifications and descriptions of the solutions you need. Do not rely solely on making choices between what exists and is emerging.

Without a comprehensive app in hand and the strategic data back-end that aggregates all student interactions with the institution, it will be difficult for colleges and universities to keep pace with the needs of employers and for students to merge their learning into their social context.

This article was originally published on The

(Gordon Freedman is Founder and President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, NLET, a West Coast nonprofit devoted to gaining processing parity between consumer apps, e-commerce and big science and the academic space. We value your input as we build this new nonprofit.)

Predictive Analytics for #HigherEd

Published by EdTechDigest – February 24, 2017

How real-time decisioning is shaping higher education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Joe DeCosmo and Sean Naismith

CREDIT Enova.pngThe need for institutions of higher education to deliver solid return-on-investment for their students has never been greater. With the cost of traditional higher education continuing to rise, universities are in competition with each other to essentially secure high-paying careers for students upon graduation. Meanwhile, for-profit universities are striving to meet gainful employment regulations and debt-to-earnings requirements that are meant to ensure students graduate with the skills and tools necessary for career success as well as the financial capability to repay student loan debt with sufficient career earnings.

Now, and in the future, higher education institutions need innovative ways to deliver on their students’ return on investment.

Now, and in the future, higher education institutions need innovative ways to deliver on their students’ return on investment. Advanced, real-time predictive analytics decisioning technology is emerging…

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The First Jedi of @Salesforce for #HigherEd


Back in 2005 when Salesforce was still a very young platform Ed Schlesinger designed Studentforce, the first Salesforce application for Higher Education. In September 2005 Studentforce was among the first 25 products/services that were showcased on the beta version of the AppExchange.


What is Studentforce

Studentforce is a purely declarative application built on the Salesforce platform. It not only helps students to easily manage their day-to-day activities, but also allows school faculty to manage students within their educational life cycle.

As grown ups, we tend to say that the lives of students are easy and full of hedonistic fun. But this is because we have already developed our own life experience. The reality is we didn’t think this way in our school, college and university days. Do you still remember how many different tasks your days consisted of? I cannot name a single student who never missed a class because they thought it was taking place on another day. Neither do I know a student who never had to work on an assignment last minute because they completely forgot about it. Have you ever been in a situation when you (or any of your school friends) couldn’t remember the name of that red head science teacher with big glasses? Well, guess what?  That’s because none of us had the power of Studentforce.

With Studentforce, you can track classes, assignments and the grades you receive for each assignment. You can easily manage student loans, search and apply for internship opportunities and set various reminders. It even allows you to store the names of all your teachers and the subjects they teach. My personal favorite, though, is being able to discuss teachers with other students in Chatter. Sounds handy, right?

Teaching students to manage their days in an efficient way also means preparing them to be responsible adults.

Ed told me a story about his daughter’s teacher who forgot that she had already checked and marked an assignment paper. Because Ed’s daughter stored this information in Studentforce, she was able to easily find the missing information and produce it in evidence to back up her case. If that happened to me when I was a student, I would probably end up re-doing the paper. Doesn’t sound fair, agree?

Real life Jedi

I have always wondered what it was like to create Salesforce apps back in 2005. What were the available functionalities? What were the main challenges, frustrations and limitations? How did developers manage to turn their ideas into working solutions without the tools that we have today? Who, and what inspired them?

I believe that people who created those first Apps and made them available to the public were real life Jedi. It can be difficult to design a well performing solution. And, in my opinion, it was much harder back then. In 2005 Salesforce developers didn’t have extensive Apex libraries, Visualforce, Lightning Components or even workflows. Many things that can be easily done by a newly certified Salesforce Admin or Developer today belonged to a long list of unavailable functionalities. There were not many training resources available either. Someone who wanted to design a new Salesforce app had to think not just about the functional side but also how to technically implement it using a very limited range of tools and resources. These people had far less power at their disposal then today’s application developers.

From a great idea to a functional solution

 “I am by no means an expert. I am a non-technical user who has been able to develop what many think is a functional tool for students,”

Phil Wainewright quoted Ed in his blog post “Web 3.0:’s ‘Business Web’ in January 2006 (

A couple of months ago Ed Schlesinger, the first Jedi of Salesforce for Higher Education shared the story of Studentforce with me. Today, almost 11 years later he still stands by his words.

Prior to working with Salesforce platform Ed Schlesinger sold PeopleSoft implementation services to Higher Education. He already knew this industry well and noticed there were no solutions built with students in mind.  However it was Ed’s daughter that inspired him to actually start working on a solution design. One day she looked at his computer screen while Ed was working selling Salesforce implementations.  She pointed out the calendar, the tasks and said it would be great to have tabs that said Term/Semester, Classes, Assignments, etc.

At that time Salesforce had not made the platform available to developers. Almost the only configuration change type you could do was changing tab names in a rudimentary fashion.  Ed was forced to start designing Studentforce without the ability to create new objects. The solution he designed was based upon interviews he had with his children’s college and high school friends.

Ed Schlesinger then made Salesforce aware of what he was doing. Shortly after he received a call from their first CTO/CMO (Tien Tzuo who is now CEO of Zuora).That was in March 2005.  By June 2005 Salesforce had announced a beta version of the AppExchange and that 25 products/services built on the platform would be showcased.  Studentforce was one of them in September 2005.  Studentforce was the only OEM type (built fully 100% Declaratively and 100% Natively and not related to CRM) solution showcased on the AppExchange in September 2005.

Beyond September 2005 Ed continued to mature the application taking advantage of new platform capabilities as they surfaced.

I believe that Ed inspired many developers to create new Salesforce apps. Being the first at something is never easy. You don’t know what to expect. You have no idea whether your project is going to be successful or not. But the only way to find out is to actually do it.

If you have an idea and would like to develop a Salesforce app, do it now.

You won’t be the first Jedi of Salesforce for Higher Education, this place belongs to Ed Schlesinger. But you can be the first Jedi of your own Salesforce area.

Spring ’17 Release Recap

Adam To Architect

One of the great things about Salesforce is that they have releases 3 times a year with 250-300 new features each time! One of the not as great things about Salesforce is that means reading through very long documents (466 pages this time) if you want to keep up. Fortunately for you, this and other blog posts can give you a taste of the new Spring ’17 release without having to navigate all 466 pages on your own!

If you’d like to check it out for yourself though, feel free to peruse the HTML or PDF versions. I’ve included links to the portions that I mention in the titles of each subsection. You can also check out the summary videos for each cloud on the Salesforce website.


General Salesforce Enhancements

Here the my favorite General Salesforce Enhancements for this release. These changes apply to both Salesforce Classic and Lightning Experience.

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A Look Back at @jenwlee’s @Salesforce 2016

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