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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?

Little: Certainly. 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 research?

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.

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