Teaching Business Intelligence at Cornell University

by Jeff Christen, Cornell University

For the Fall 2016 semester, I had the opportunity to teach a pilot, four credit, masters level course through Cornell University’s Computer and Information Science department. The course was entitled, Business Intelligence Systems and its goal was to give students a solid foundation and understanding of BI concepts including dimensional data modeling, ETL design and data visualizations. In addition, the course reinforced their technical learning through hands-on experience with industry standard tools.

Course Content

The primary text for the course was The Data Warehouse Toolkit Third Edition by Ralph Kimball & Margy Ross, supplemented with some on-line articles. The first third of the semester focused on dimensional modeling using the Kimball methodology. The second third of the semester covered SQL, ETL design & development, and basic data visualization concepts through hands on tutorials and individual assignments using the virtual BI lab. The final third of the semester was largely focused on the team projects with some special topic discussions.

Virtual BI Lab

The core of the hands-on learning experience was a virtual lab environment where each student had their own Amazon Web Services Workspace (virtual desktop) with Oracle SQL Developer, the WhereScape RED ETL tool and Tableau desktop installed. In addition to their Workspace, each student had access to the class database which was an AWS Oracle RDS with many sample data sets plus a database account for each student with access to create tables, views, etc.  The students had everything they needed to explore data sets, create their own dimensional models and populate a data warehouse using WhereScape RED and finally build various visualizations with Tableau.  The use of the AWS Workspaces allowed the student to access their environment from any device and not worry about the installation of the various software products and database drivers. The AWS Workspaces lab also allowed us to work through examples interactively during class. This also came in handy for office hours when a student could simply open their laptop and show me where they were struggling with their assignment.

Team Project

In addition to several individual assignments focused on core skills, the students also participated in a team project.  Project teams consisted of 4-5 students and each was one of three BI projects using real world Cornell business challenges and associated data sets.  There were multiple teams per project which helped illustrate that there are multiple ways to implement a BI solution.

Project teams had access to a snapshot of the necessary source data via the virtual lab.  The teams were also given a description of the business goals for their project and they had the opportunity to question a business representative about their project.  The students had milestone deliverables throughout the project to help keep them on track by providing deadlines and feedback on their progress.  Example milestones included: requirements tracking, logical dimensional data model, and ETL source to target mapping document.

The final deliverable was a working Proof of Concept, fully documented, along with a 20-minute presentation on their work to their client and classmates.  Each project team also created an online portfolio of their project work using ePortfolio by Digication.  The project ePortfolio sites served two purposes;  1) They serve as a nice reference for the client who may choose to implement one of the student Proof of Concepts and  2) The students may simply add their ePortfolio url to their resume to showcase their project work.

Here are two sample team ePortfolio sites:

MPS Projects for Spring semester

As part of Cornell’s Masters of Professional Studies – Information Science program, students must complete a semester long team project (http://infosci.cornell.edu/academics/mps/mps-project) MPS students work in teams of 2-3 and receive credits for the project. Two of the project options available to students this Spring semester are from the Fall BI course.  The MPS student teams will work much more closely with the Cornell business clients to further refine requirements from the Proof of Concepts created by the Fall class teams with the goal of implementing a production BI solution for their client.  For the MPS projects, the students will not be working in the virtual lab environment, but in Cornell’s DW/BI environment where they will be introduced to Cornell’s DW/BI data modeling and coding standards and processes.  The student teams will meet weekly with members of Cornell’s Office of Data Architecture and Analytics (ODAA) where they will receive feedback on their work in the form of model reviews, code review and project discussions.  The two BI MPS projects are co-sponsored by the business clients and ODAA. This should result in deliverables that not only meet the business requirements but are sustainable and supportable by ODAA after the students leave.


Student feedback on the Fall BI Systems course has been very positive.  Students found the blend of Kimball Dimensional Modeling theory, mixed with a lot of hands on work, to be an effective means of learning the concepts and complexities of data. Thirty-two students successfully completed the course, and Cornell plans to offer the course again for Fall semester 2017.

2017 HEDW Survey of Top 10 Issues

by Hank Childers, University of Arizona

We recently surveyed HEDW’s membership to determine the top 10 topics of interest.  There were over 300 responses.  The survey was similar to the one we did the year before, which allows us to compare the results.  Aaron Walz of Purdue University and I will present an analysis of the results at the 2017 HEDW Conference at the University of Arizona.  But here’s a sneak preview of some of the headlines.

Data Governance Is #1 for the second straight year

57% of respondents placed this in their Top 10.  The pattern seems clear and compelling.  But what’s the message?  Is this about data quality, which was independently ranked #3?  Or about data definitions, which was independently ranked #4?  Is this about the need to have data governance, or about how to go about actually doing it successfully?  Considering that the cluster of data governance, data quality, and data definitions occupies three of the top four spots, this is a very strong signal!  It seems like a ripe topic for presentations this coming April.

Data Governance is only Top 10 topic named by more than 50% of respondents

As strong as the signal around data governance seems to be, it’s interesting to note that it’s the only topic to meet the 50% threshold.  This speaks to the differences among us.  Perhaps this is related to different institutions being at different points in their evolution, or perhaps different priorities operating at different institutions.  Or perhaps half the institutions have mastered data governance, and the rest of us haven’t!

Student Success Climbs to #2

This is not a surprise, since it was #3 last year.  It is the only issue in the “Higher Education Issues & Opportunities” category to make the Top 10.  And that was true last year as well.  It was selected by 47% of the respondents, so it’s close to that 50% threshold.  And given the visible attention being paid in general to student success by our institutions this is not a surprise.  The next highest ranked item in that category was Learning Analytics at #16.

No People topics in the Top 10

No topics in the category called “People, including hard skills, soft skills, & marketplace” made it to the Top 10.  The highest was Data Modeling at #15.  Maybe we don’t like people.

Top 12 is the new Top 10

Similar to what happened last year, there was so little difference between #10 (30%), #11(29%), and #12 (28%), that we expanded the list from 10 to 12, based on the natural break in the data.  (#13 was 23%.)


Mobile comes in dead last

Mobile came in as #51 out of 51, with 5% of the respondents naming it as an issue.  Not that long ago it would likely have been much higher up.  Things do change.

Speaking of maturity

We will soon be contacting the membership inviting HEDW members to participate in a survey based on the BI Maturity Model.  We did this survey three years ago, and we judge it a good time to do it again.  It should be very interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t on an overall basis, and also for those individual institutions who participated in the earlier survey to assess their progress.  Aaron Walz and I will also report on our analysis of these results at the HEDW meeting in April 2017.  More to come on this.


(November 30, 2017; hankc@email.arizona.edu)

Welcome to the HEDW Blog!

Greetings, HEDW friends!

Fall is finally upon us, by the calendar and the weather outside, and the return of bustle to our campuses.  This is also the start of a new planning season for HEDW, which kicked off with our annual Board meeting a couple weeks ago in Tucson, the beautiful site of our 2017 conference.

This is HEDW’s 14th year, and over the past years we’ve been thrilled to see more and more folks from institutions around the U.S. and beyond join our community.  This year and beyond, I hope that we all can build on the great relationships already established and forge new connections as we collaborate, commiserate, and share experiences in higher education data warehousing and analytics.

With that in mind, the Board has chosen a thematic goal for this year to “Consciously experiment with alternate means of engaging the membership”.  In support of this, we’ll be exploring ways to keep the enthusiasm and collaboration we see at our annual conferences strong all year long.  In particular, we’re:

  • Exploring webinar technology for use in structured presentations, group discussions, and other ways.
  • Planning regular blog entries to share thoughts and wonderings with the community – this is the first!

And, of course, our core activities continue:

  • Gearing up for our 2017 conference, in sunny Tucson, hosted by the University of Arizona, April 23rd – 26th, 2017
  • Ongoing research work, including our Research Top 10 survey, and continuing maturity work
  • Online discussion forums on hedw.org.

You can find the roster of current Board members on the HEDW site at https://hedw.org/about-us/executive-board/.  Please feel free to reach out to us via the contact link on the same page, or in the new “Ask the Board” forum thread.

I’m so glad to be part of this vibrant community, and to have met and learned from – in person or virtually – so many of you.  I hope to see you online in the forums and at the conference in Tucson!

— Amy

Amy A. Miller, HEDW President 2016-2017
IT Director, Enterprise Information & Analytics, University of Pennsylvania