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Title: Cool Vendors in Leveraging Data in Education, 2015
Author: Terri-Lynn B. Thayer, Jan-Martin Lowendahl

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G00275898

Cool Vendors in Leveraging Data in Education,
2015
Published: 6 April 2015

Analyst(s): Terri-Lynn B. Thayer, Jan-Martin Lowendahl

Digitalization of education is generating large quantities of data. Leveraging
that data to improve student learning and both educator and institutional
performance will be the hallmark of exceptional institutions. CIOs should
consider these cool options for leveraging data in education.

Key Findings


Increasing digitalization of education brings a potentially overwhelming number of data sources
that need to be visualized for educators, which would empower them to provide personalized
learning for their students, as well as drive their own professional development.



Competing in the expanding digital education ecosystem requires integration of siloed systems
on campus, as well as interoperability with external providers and services.



Using social data in learning has proved to be very effective in several online solutions such as
Massive Open Online Courses and Livemocha, a social software language learning site.



Significant opportunity exists for leveraging data to create meaningful analytics to improve
student success.

Recommendations
Education CIOs should:


Focus more on the information part of information technology, as well as seek solutions that
integrate data sources, and put them at the educator's fingertips.



Enable interoperability with external services to extend the value chain, and improve the student
experience.



Monitor, evaluate and integrate learning tools that provide data in several dimensions, of which
social is potentially the most important. Solutions such as Declara, Knewton and Conexus each
bring different data to this equation.



Leverage the value of your data by simplifying the integration of systems.



Support student success initiatives by considering solutions that leverage data about the
student in a more holistic way across the education spectrum.

Analysis
This research does not constitute an exhaustive list of vendors in any given technology area, but
rather is designed to highlight interesting, new and innovative vendors, products and services.
Gartner disclaims all warranties, express or implied, with respect to this research, including any
warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose.

What You Need to Know
Digitalization of education is generating large quantities of data, driving the need for new tools to
leverage the data. Improving student learning, and both educator and institutional performance with
personalized learning techniques and informed decision making will be key initiatives for most
institutions. In this year's Cool Vendors in Leveraging Data in Education report, we highlight vendors
that have been innovative in digitizing a part of the education ecosystem. Each provides education
institutions with interesting options for tools to leverage data. Conexus puts educators in the
driver's seat by mashing up data from a variety of sources to deliver understandable learning
analytics. DecisionDesk provides an improved student experience and streamlined decision
process by introducing video and supporting richer integration with both internal and external data
sources. Declara leverages the social dimension to personalize learning for both educators and
students. N2N Services enables integration simplifying a hybrid architecture. In this research, we
also revisit previously profiled Starfish Retention Solutions, recently acquired by Hobsons, which
positions it to leverage data across the spectrum K-20 and more to improve student recruitment,
enrollment, engagement, and retention.

Conexus
Drammen, Norway (www.conexus.no)
Analysis by Jan-Martin Lowendahl
Why Cool: Conexus, a vendor focused on collecting and visualizing education-related data, is cool
because it puts the teacher in the driver's seat, using learning analytics based on a number of
sources such as student information system (SIS) and learning management system (LMS) data.
There is a tsunami of technologies hitting the classroom, all promising some new "digital" way of
improving student learning. With more digital tools comes more data that can be useful, but also
potentially overwhelming. Conexus provides a structured environment to incorporate data, and put
it first and foremost at the teacher's fingertips for reflection and action. A fundamental aim is to
enable the teacher to "teach like a pro" by, for example, providing graphs on learning progress (see
"Teach Like a Pro") that enable teachers to build personalized study plans, where the teacher
makes the final decision based on knowledge of student capacity. This focus on the teacher is still
relatively uncommon, and sets Conexus apart from many other tools that are predominantly
focused on providing data to administrators, or sometimes directly to students.
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Although the concept itself is not new, a key to Conexus' coolness is its comprehensive approach
to gathering and making use of data. The deliberate approach to combining group-level data, such
as demographics, with individual data through surveys makes Conexus an extendable tool that can
grow with available data sources. The ability to integrate with other vendors, such as Knewton and
Declara, as well as rapidly identify and provide academically, professionally and culturally
appropriate developed surveys around, for example, the new Program for International Student
Assessment (from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) for 21st century
skills (see "21st Century Key Capacities" and Note 1) show a focus on process, rather than product.
Although the teacher is at the center, Conexus is also a personal tool for students and their parents,
as well as a tool for school leaders and ministries of education. The ultimate benefit of having a
Conexus-type framework is that it helps teachers identify what impact they and their pedagogical
approaches (digital or not) have on student learning outcomes.
Challenges: Conexus' biggest challenge is to adapt to national requirements and culture that can
stand in the way of scalability. At its best, key components of Conexus, such as the self-evaluation
surveys for students and teachers, are aligned with national curricula and pedagogical beliefs.
Another challenge is the need for international standards, such as Caliper, for learning analytics to
allow for easy integration of data sources, and to avoid walled gardens of data.
Who Should Care:


School leaders should care about the capability to put data into the hands of the individual
teacher, and use it to enable professional development, as well as teacher-led personalized
education.



CIOs need to care about supporting the integration needs of Conexus, and potentially
implement an exostructure strategy to be prepared to extend Conexus data sources (see
"Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Education Ecosystem Requires Going Beyond Mere
Infrastructure to Exostructure"). Conexus can also be a key component in the CIO's analytics
strategy.

DecisionDesk
Lakewood, Ohio (www.decisiondesk.com)
Analysis by Terri-Lynn B. Thayer
Why Cool: DecisionDesk is cool because it provides a cloud-based applicant hub supporting
multimedia-enhanced applications. It extends the admission value chain by providing the
middleware to ease integration with suppliers such as transcript delivery services, as well as cloud
and on-premises CRM and SISs. DecisionDesk has established partnerships (for example, with
Salesforce) and integrations with key players in these domains (for example, Ellucian and Oracle). It
improves the student experience by simplifying the admission process. As a new-generation
admission platform, it can serve as an aggregator for admission documents — allowing students to
supply data only once, but then apply to many institutions. It has particular applicability as a single

Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

Page 3 of 10

entry point for entire public university systems — directing applications to the most-appropriate
institution within a system. DecisionDesk streamlines the decision process with workflow and
analytics. Its partnerships with other emerging hot vendors, such as Parchment for transcript
receipt, Stripe for Web payments, and RIVS or Kira Talent for video interviews, will likely make
DecisionDesk very attractive to both parties in the admission process — students and institutions —
each an important constituency to acquire. An interesting aspect of the DecisionDesk solution is
that it includes an opt-in end-user licensing agreement from the student. This formal relationship
with the prospective student, namely, its acquisition of the student customer, may ultimately prove
to be one of the most key elements of the DecisionDesk value proposition.
Challenges: The recruitment, admission and enrollment space is a crowded market, with
functionality being provided by established ERP/SIS vendors, CRM vendors and niche players (for
example, Full Fabric and Technolutions Slate). There is functional overlap with existing partners
(Kira Talent) and other new-admission platform entrants. Long-established application aggregator,
The Common Application, also has a strong foothold, so DecisionDesk can expect fierce
competition.
CIOs and institutional leaders may have difficulty understanding the market space for DecisionDesk,
and be confused about the product positioning. This may lead them to ask, "Why do I need
DecisionDesk, and an SIS admission module, and a recruitment/enrollment CRM?" To this end,
DecisionDesk will need to work on its long-term strategy and roadmap — specifically, will it move in
a direction to eventually replace the admission module (system of record), the CRM (the system of
engagement/differentiation), document, credential and application aggregators (for example, The
Common Application), or all of these? As DecisionDesk works through this, and continues to mature
its product and business model, it is likely that some existing partners may be threatened, and
begin to view DecisionDesk as a competitor. However, this particular challenge is likely to be a
common one in the digital business world, and companies that can manage this challenge by
extending the value chain to include competitors will emerge as winners.
Who Should Care:


Admission and enrollment professionals who desire an improved applicant experience,
streamlined decision process, document management and automated integration with suppliers
and other campus systems.



Admission officers and faculty who can more easily accept and evaluate multimedia elements of
an application.



Students who are looking for an intuitive, one-stop integrated approach to the college
application process.



CIOs and academic leaders who can use DecisionDesk dashboards to view aggregate
applicant and decision data to better manage institutional performance.

Declara
Palo Alto, California (www.declara.com)

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Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

Analysis by Jan-Martin Lowendahl
Why Cool: Declara can somewhat inadequately be described as a software as a service (SaaS)
personal learning platform, and it is cool because it adds a social dimension in adaptive learning. In
its early years, it has predominantly focused on peer-to-peer (P2P) professional development for
knowledge workers in a broad sense, but most notably, teachers. However, social is only one
dimension that makes Gartner designate Declara as a Cool Vendor. More correctly, Declara is
aiming to be a context-learning environment, where many hot concepts are joined up to help an
individual quickly solve a problem or find actionable information. The concepts contributing to the
context are, for example, social, machine learning, semantic search and knowledge algorithms that
form what Declara has dubbed the CognitiveGraph. This is then used to suggest sources for
learning to the user, ranging from plain text to people.
This is not dissimilar to Knewton's adaptive learning engine using "knowledge graphs," but with an
important difference — it emphasizes more the social dimension (shown to be so successful by
Livemocha), and is less dependent on an upfront metadata schema for the topic to be mastered
relative to Knewton. Instead, Declara offers an approach to learning that analyzes and observes a
user's interactions and behavioral trajectory — represented by searches, curated collections,
highlighted and annotated insights, tweets, posts, likes, messaging and Web content — to push
personalized resources, P2P connections or expert referrals to users to accelerate their learning.
The platform integrates capabilities of artificial intelligence subdomains, machine learning and deep
learning to scale up predictive analytics and prescriptive learning experiences based on an
individual's intentions, capabilities and needs.
Most of Declara's concepts are not really new as ideas, but it combines them in a very promising
way that has brought it recognition from venture capitalists. In two rounds, it has secured at least
$30 million since its start in 2012 (including GSV Capital, Founders Fund and Data Collective). Do
not let the 2012 start date fool you, as the company founders have long experience in data-based
personalized learning concepts, and have had time to learn by doing through ventures such as
SynapticMash and Power of U. It has also secured two interesting early adopters in Sindicato
Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, which is the largest teachers union in Mexico (1.6 million
members), to help prepare teachers for education reform, and Education Services Australia, to help
implement a new national curricula.
Education Services Australia created a national platform for teacher collaboration, Scootle
Community, which is powered by Declara. With this, thousands of teachers create communities,
share resources, link to content and make connections that help them collaborate on solutions. The
CognitiveGraph learns what teachers are doing, with whom, how and why, to predict which
information and social contact will most benefit them.
Challenges: Although a very promising approach, the Declara solution is still in the very early days.
As with all adaptive and social "engines," it is only as good as the underlying dataset. The first
challenge is to get a sufficiently large dataset for the algorithms to have a statistically valid set to
work with. The second challenge is to adapt the algorithms themselves to do valid predictions/
recommendations with the available datasets. As noted above, the social approach is probably a
simpler way to go than "pure" adaptive learning, but it has its own challenges. In the present

Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

Page 5 of 10

examples shared with us, the Declara platform is essentially a walled garden solution applied to one
organization at the time (although, very large organizations). A question then becomes, at what size
an organization needs to be to get value out of the Declara solution. This is something that Declara
looks to remedy with its "prosumer" solution to be released in mid-May 2015. Ranging from free to
$20 or more/user/month in four "levels" (free, teams, small enterprise and large enterprise), Declara
hopes to build a community that, in itself, will potentially become the basis for the business. This is,
in a way, a promising generalization of Livemocha's successful business model, where the
community became the business (see "Business Model Innovation Examples in Education"). This
would potentially solve data-volume issues adding potentially billions of points of data, and
introduce an interesting cross-pollination opportunity between different industries However, on the
other hand, it would also introduce a new dimension of security and privacy issues for individuals
belonging to different organizations. On top of this, it will be interesting to see how well predictive
algorithms travel culturally, for example, whether a social predictive algorithm developed in North
America or Europe would work in Africa or Asia.
Who Should Care:


Directors of teaching and learning should definitely monitor Declara for its social dimension to
professional development and adaptive learning. Alongside this, it is recommended to look at
other approaches to personalized learning, such as Conexus and Knewton.



Education CIOs need to care as solutions such as Declara make personal and organizational
information crucial to support the mission of the institution, and it requires a good technical
(exostructure) strategy to integrate the many data sources.

N2N Services
Duluth, Georgia (www.n2nservices.com)
Analysis by Terri-Lynn B. Thayer
Why Cool: N2N Services is cool because its N2N Integration Cloud provides integration platform as
a service (iPaaS) middleware to connect previously isolated education systems of record, thus,
enabling a plug-and-play environment across the education ecosystem. Integration of these
systems is important not only for operational efficiency, but increasingly important for institutional
effectiveness. N2N is targeting its integration cloud (which is hosted on Amazon Web Services) as a
platform that enables an institution to leverage data across the growing number of systems, to
support both institutional and learning analytics. Specifically, it supports integration of on-premises/
SaaS products with other SaaS products at an educational institution. N2N Integration Cloud
supports many common SIS systems (for example, Ellucian, Jenzabar and Oracle), CRM
(Salesforce), admission platform (DecisionDesk), LMS (for example, Blackboard, Canvas, D2L and
Moodle) and other campus systems, such as Regent Education's financial aid solution. Its clients
include many types of educational institutions, including public, private and for-profit higher
education, as well as K-12. It also has a few vendor clients that are predominantly best-of-breed
players. Institutional performance and effectiveness require informed decision-making capabilities
that are made possible only by enabling this crosstalk between key systems on campus. A highereducation-specific iPaaS solution such as N2N Integration Cloud may be a solution for the
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Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

unsustainable number of point-to-point interfaces that dominate the typical application architecture
on most campuses today. With the cloud/on-premises "hybrid reality" of the postmodern ERP era,
there will be growing demand for newer integration solutions, and this industry-focused option is
well-targeted at this opportunity space (see "Higher Education CIOs: Renovate Your ERP Core for
Digital Business").
Challenges: N2N, founded in 2010, started as a service company, and began transitioning to a
product company in 2014. It has a fairly diverse portfolio of products and services for such a young
and lean company. These include offerings in identity management, CRM, personalized learning
and student engagement, in addition to N2N Integration Cloud. It will likely prove difficult to make
strong gains in all these areas. Without focus, the company could languish as a mediocre player
that remains more of a service company that creates custom integrations, rather than an iPaaS
solution provider. However, recent integration agreements with SaaS vendors, such as Instructure,
DecisionDesk and Regent Education, may provide the traction needed to allow N2N to crystallize its
focus on N2N Integration Cloud. The N2N Integration Cloud offering is early in its development, and
while it reports almost 50 customers, there are only a few customers that are reportedly
independently maintaining their own integrations without ongoing vendor-provided services —
another sign that the current solution could be more of a collection of custom integrations, rather
than an evolving true integration platform. While this may not be an early showstopper, it might
constrain its base of interested customers to small, noncomplex institutions, which, in turn, could
ultimately limit the breadth, scalability and success of the solution.
Who Should Care:


CIOs and IT leaders who have complex point-to-point integrations today, and are facing rapid
growth in the number of best-of-breed higher education solutions being adopted by their
campuses. To sustain, they will need to transition their integration strategy to a more loosely
coupled and federated architecture — an exostructure. N2N may provide a cloud integration
option that allows them to migrate to this new architecture with an offering that is highly aligned
with the growing education ecosystem offerings.



CIOs trying to integrate a new SaaS product on campus.



CIOs who have underresourced IT departments may lack the staff cycles and skills to
implement and maintain custom integrations with more generalized on-premises or cloud
enterprise service bus technologies. They may benefit the most from the provision of highereducation-specific integration platform services in the cloud.



Education technology vendors looking for a quick way to implement their product at a client site
without getting constrained by client resources and competencies.

Where Are They Now?
Starfish Retention Solutions
Arlington, Virginia (www.starfishsolutions.com)

Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

Page 7 of 10

Analysis by Terri-Lynn B. Thayer
Profiled in "Cool Vendors in Education, 2012"
Why Cool Then: Starfish Retention Solutions was an early entrant in the student engagement, and
retention CRM and analytics space. The Starfish Early Alert product was built to mine data from
other campus systems of record, such as the SIS and LMS, to alert administrators and faculty
about potential problems with the student's engagement or performance.
Where They Are Now: With almost 250 customers and four product modules comprising the
Starfish Enterprise Success Platform, the solution has matured in both the CRM and analytics
elements of the offering. Its focus continues to be near-term analysis and automated intervention for
engagement and retention. On 23 February 2015, Hobsons, a global company focused on the
education sector, founded in 1974 and headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, announced that it had
acquired Starfish Retention Solutions. This acquisition brings together Starfish's visionary market
offering in the retention analytics space with an established company. Hobsons has decades of
experience and a proven track record in the higher education admission and enrollment space, as
well as K-12 advising. Hobsons' international presence and strong customer base will bring a high
degree of value and credibility to the still-evolving Starfish vision. This acquisition forms a strong
foundation for the expansion of the Hobsons' CRM offerings to now include the middle portion of
the student life cycle — leaving the alumni and continuing-education phases as the obvious next
frontier. The combination of Hobsons' K-12 product Naviance and its higher education enrollment
CRM Radius with these newly acquired components from Starfish introduces the potential for
connecting data points across the spectrum K-20 and more, further enhancing the opportunities for
analytics to improve student satisfaction and success.
Who Should Care:


Faculty, academic advisors and deans who are focused on student success, and lack tools to
identify, analyze and intervene.



Enrollment management professionals who may benefit from the analytics provided from
current student engagement/retention tools to improve future recruitment and enrollment
activities.



CIOs and academic leaders who can anticipate integrated product offerings with the
expectation that this will move them a step closer to a 360-degree view of the student.



Hobsons' Retain clients who can expect to gain access to the Starfish Enterprise Success
Platform.

Gartner Recommended Reading
Some documents may not be available as part of your current Gartner subscription.
"Use Big Data to Fuel Big Change in K-12 Education in 2015"

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Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

"Higher Education CIOs: Renovate Your ERP Core for Digital Business"
"Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Education Ecosystem Requires Going Beyond Mere
Infrastructure to Exostructure"
"Top 10 Business Trends Impacting Education in 2015"
Note 1 21st Century Skills
P. Griffin, B. McGaw, E. Care. "Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills." Springer. 2012.
Conexus originates its definition of 21st century skills in the book: "Rapid — and seemingly
accelerating — changes in the economies of developed nations are having a proportional effect on
the skill sets required of workers in many new jobs. Work environments are often technology-heavy,
while problems are frequently ill-defined and tackled by multidisciplinary teams. This book contains
insights based on research conducted as part of a major international project supported by Cisco,
Intel and Microsoft. It faces these new working environments head-on, delineating new ways of
thinking about '21st-century' skills and including operational definitions of those skills."
Conexus engages professors Louise Stoll and Mark Hargreaves to continuously develop survey
questions to match the evolving learning landscape.

Gartner, Inc. | G00275898

Page 9 of 10


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