Community Colleges | Feature
The Rosetta Stone of Student Success Data
A Q&A with Russ Little, Sinclair Community College
| Russ Little |
This week, WCET announced that the Predictive Analytics
Reporting (PAR) Framework project data definitions are now to be offered under
Creative Commons licensing. This move makes, for the first time, the data
fields and definitions used by the WCET-managed PAR project public and openly
available. CT asked Russ Little, who
serves as project director for the student success plan at Sinclair Community
College what this means not only for PAR member institutions like his, but for
other community colleges and the higher education community in general.
Mary Grush: What is
the impact of this week's announcement that the PAR Framework common data
definitions will now be offered as open source?
Russ Little: As
someone working on implementing strategies for student success, to me, the
impact will be improved communications and a taxonomy for sharing our work. Up
to this point, trying to replicate another institution's successes in student
completion, retention, intervention, or any other strategy or project related
to student success has been difficult especially because as institutions we
often use different terms for the same thing, or the same terms for different
things. Now, PAR is offering its data definitions and making them open and
available under creative commons license. This is a great starting point,
particularly in the community college space, to begin to look at how we
communicate amongst ourselves.
How can we study problems related to student success
longitudinally and across many institutions if we're not really using the same
terminology--if we can't arrive at common definitions and use the same
language? Or worse, if we think we've
arrived at common definitions but haven't, making our findings suspect?
So, relevant to this week's announcement, I'm very excited
that we are starting to see the community build out this open framework, with
PAR leading the way. Of course, the PAR Framework has been supporting the work
that will lead to effective learner relationship management systems, and now,
offering the data definitions openly will lead to bigger strides in this work
and more community involvement.
Grush: What's an
example of a term in the data dictionary?
Little: Take for
example, "credential-seeking students." If you and I are sharing our work on
student success, are we going to be talking about the same thing? We don't want
to find out later that your "credential-seeking students" meant only those
seeking degrees, and mine included those working toward certificates.
Grush: Are you
expecting that institutions will adopt common terminology?
Little: No, we're not
expecting that institutions will change all their variables to match PAR's data
dictionary. Rather, the PAR Framework is created as a way to map what is in
your system with what is in my system, so that we can communicate better
through this common language. Both PAR member institutions and non-members can
leverage the open data definitions to support and share their work and study
related to student success.
Grush: What about
areas besides those we've been hearing about most--intervention, retention, and
completion? Are there other areas where the definitions can be useful to institutions?
Institutions will hopefully collaborate with PAR, but they can also use the
taxonomy to collaborate with peer institutions in areas other than student
success. Take for example, student records--clearly one area where careful data
definition is essential.
Grush: Will all this
help community colleges with the actual application of analytics for student
success--that is, actually applying analytics, not just taking part in
Little: Theoretically, the 'secret sauce' of PAR
is likely to be in the way we use insights and analytics to combine the
variables to find results that are actionable and can make a difference. As
most community colleges are probably more focused on practice than on the type
of ongoing analytics research that you might find at research universities,
this is where PAR may benefit them in the future. But, for now, the release of
the common data definitions allows us to speak the same language so we can work
together and learn from each other.
Grush: Beyond the
data definitions, PAR is creating an enormous dataset. Going forward, could the
PAR effort potentially help different types of institutions share data in
useful ways for program planning--take for example, as institutions tackle the
issues related to new degree pathways, or swirling students…?
Little: While other
datasets have been developed to look at populations in the aggregate level, the
huge dataset being developed now by PAR is more granular. So the PAR data is
richer. It lets us look first at what is true about individual students, and
then what may be different generally about groups--community college students
versus students at four-year colleges, for instance. It is useful both at the
level of the individual student and at the level of groups of students.
Strategists and program planners will have a rich resource as they look at some
of the issues you just mentioned. But of course, the uses of the PAR data going
forward is something that we’ll see as the future opens up.
Grush: But right
now, it seems the focus is clearly on student success…
Little: I think we
are at a real turning point in student success and completion efforts, and PAR
is supporting that tremendously. At my institution, we're very excited that we
can use good analytics to help us identify students who could use more
resources and those who have challenges that we can help them overcome. And
with PAR we have a framework to be able to measure and share across
institutions--using the same language--our achievements in student success. And
as institutions operating in the current resource-constrained environment, we
can try to leverage data analyics to help us use our scarce resources more
effectively and to measure and demonstrate that our resources were used
effectively. Still, our ultimate, shared goal is to help students succeed.
Happily, the tools just keep getting better.