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Opinion: ‘Ultra-Intelligent Institutions’ Need Searchable Data

In order to become “ultra-intelligent institutions” that harness data to improve all aspects of their operations, colleges and universities must make their disparate data sets accessible, searchable and analyzable by AI.

Intelligence (BI) and business analytics (BA) with key performance indicators (KPI) dashboard concept.StartUp Programming Team. Website designer working digital tablet dock keyboard.
For higher education institutions looking to maximize resources and technology, a modern information technology model known as the “ultra-intelligent institution” can provide a cohesive foundation. UII, for short, is one of three core building blocks identified in the 2023 Top 10 IT Issues report from Educause, a not-for-profit association focused on IT as a means to advance higher education.

Although “ultra-intelligent institution” might sound like a sci-fi term coined by Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, the concept refers to the untapped potential of colleges and universities to leverage technology to significantly improve virtually every aspect of institutional performance, including student recruitment and the student experience, privacy protections, operations, campus management and cybersecurity.

But what’s the key to unlocking this improved efficiency and informed decision-making in higher education? Institutions must become adept at using data in more intelligent ways.

At first glance, leveraging data to markedly change higher education might sound simplistic, until you consider the fact that universities tend to be fragmented collections of undergraduate schools, academic departments, professional schools, athletic departments and more. Subcomponents often have their own data sets and disparate IT platforms that are unconnected by a robust, centralized system. This creates duplication and potential data gaps, as well as a complex environment with sprawling tech, disconnected training and unnecessarily high costs.

Further fragmenting colleges and universities are wildly diverse communities of constituents with competing interests: undergrads, parents, alumni, donors, faculty and local communities, to name a few. Operating in such an environment demands evidence-based management informed by credible data analysis.

Making the transition from these fragmented segments to a holistic, collaborative operational model serving all institutional communities requires developing an integrated IT infrastructure that begins with data: its consolidation, searchability and shareability, and reliance upon advanced data analysis, including with artificial intelligence, to drive decision-making — a tall order.


The prospect of using data to build a UII is similar to the quest being undertaken by municipalities seeking to fast-track the evolution of urban infrastructure. These smart cities are banking on the proper alignment of data and IT tools to drive efficiencies, improve sustainability, grow economies, deliver government services, and enhance overall citizen welfare and quality of life.

As with smart cities, the challenge for higher education is to understand the possibilities of the UII, its benefits, and the smartest path for getting there. The first thing to understand is that institutions already possess a wealth of strategic intelligence that can be used to retool operations. That intel, however, tends to be buried deep within silos of unconnected, unanalyzed data. It’s like having a billion dollars deposited across 10,000 bank accounts, each with a different passcode. The value is there — if you can access it.

To tap into the potential of a UII, higher education institutions must try to consolidate disparate data within an easily accessible, unified platform that supports robust analytics, including emerging AI tools. Adopting an intelligent data-IT-AI approach will eliminate much of the institutional drag that vexes campuses, often caused by technology sprawl and siloed information.

If institutions have a comprehensive search capability complemented by AI, they can centralize their data silos so that previously segmented groups can access important data wherever they are and whenever needed.

A centralized platform that translates plain, siloed data into actionable insights could help build an optimal UII by providing:

  • secure, comprehensive information sharing throughout the institution
  • enterprise-level decision-making informed by incisive data analytics
  • responsive campus security capable of collecting, correlating and sharing actionable insights in real time
  • quick detection and remediation of cyber threats
  • an array of digital-first experiences to students, educators and staff, including remote teaching, accessible digital resources and other benefits of smart campuses
  • personalized learning experiences, as well as instant access to relevant information, for students in hybrid environments
  • business intelligence for navigating a competitive market, including strategic insights in support of business operations and student recruitment
  • higher levels of employee productivity


At the end of the day, if a university’s data isn’t readily available to all involved entities, it simply isn’t as valuable to the institution as it could be. When data is unified and stored in one platform — where it can leverage AI and search technology — the value is maximized, and the real-world implications can be far reaching. The power of search, AI and internal data enables universities to personalize student experiences, streamline business operations and strengthen cybersecurity.

When universities combine disparate databases and formats, they make it possible for all constituencies to access the right data at the right time — transformation from a “typical” institution to an ultra-intelligent one in today’s hyper-digital world.

Matthew Wehle is a principal solution architect of Elastic, a search platform supporting higher education across the Mid-Atlantic region.