Strategic Directions | Feature

Innovation: Moving Analytics to Action

A Q&A with Russ Little, PAR's New Chief Innovation Officer

The PAR Framework has a new executive officer. Russ Little announced today that he will be leaving his post at Sinclair Community College to join PAR [] as its Chief Innovation Officer, a new position at the nonprofit provider of learner analytics as a service. Innovations already in place, such as an enormous 1.8 million record data set built on anonymized data from more than 20 member institutions, common data definitions, and tools for data exploration and visualization are a great start, but these are really first steps, explains Little. CT asked him what is needed now, and what the next areas ripe for innovation may be.

Mary Grush: You announced today that you will become PAR's Chief Innovation Officer. Can you tell me a little about that move? Based on current directions and trends you're watching in the academic analytics space, how will you be focusing your efforts, at least initially?

Russ Little: I'm now wrapping up a long-term grant for Sinclair Community College's IPAS (Integrated Planning and Advising) system, an NGLC effort that is the technological basis for our Open Source Student Success Plan (SSP) at Sinclair. I'd been working on IPAS for several years as Director and Chief Evangelist for SSP at Sinclair, but with that ending, I knew I wanted to do something more that would help students succeed. I also wanted to stay in the nonprofit space and tackle work that would be significant for higher education. Most importantly, I wanted the work to be actionable.

I was excited at the opportunity to join PAR's staff, bringing to bear the experience I've had in analytics and with interventions in IPAS. I saw the most impactful challenge underway at PAR as the move from analytics to action. We all need to do more than "understand" what we see in the data. We need to take the analyses that we do so well and turn them into actions, and then measure those actions in order to close the loop by developing stronger and stronger interventions.

I found my new, great adventure!

Grush: It looks like student success has proven to be 'where it's at' in general. Will PAR be working on specific efforts to move this whole area substantially forward? What is the outlook for new tools, improved intervention strategies, or maybe changes in data management?

Little: Well, PAR already has some very effective new tools to inventory what interventions a college might have, and a means to match those interventions against the predictive models. These tools really support action — what the college can actually do when a student is at risk. Knowing that a student is at risk isn't nearly as helpful as knowing both that the student is at risk and then being able to answer questions about how that student is helped by particular interventions or toolsets.

Another exciting capability coming up for PAR is in the area of data interchange, bringing our predictive models into the Student Success Plan or into Starfish, the LMS, or other software platforms, so that we can make those tools even more actionable when in practitioners' hands — available to advisors or coaches so they can make better support decisions. We're trying to reliably answer the question: How can we make sure an advisor knows the best way to support a specific student? Note that this is getting actionable data into the hands of the people who will use it directly — it's not accessible only to an administrator or an analyst.

Grush: What about benchmarking? What might we see next from PAR?

Little: PAR has recently done some fantastic work in benchmarking related to watch lists and PAR's Student Success Matrix, our platform for inventorying, mapping, and measuring interventions. With watch lists, if we have a good inventory through the Student Success Matrix, we can tie that inventory to the predictions to determine the best possible actions to take and interventions to use to help the student. Then, by invoking that feedback loop [I mentioned earlier], and continuing to measure and benchmark our success, we refine our system further so institutions can take the guesswork out of which interventions to apply.

I'm really looking forward to bringing the experience I've had at Sinclair with the Student Success Plan to help shape how we use our predictive models, as well as benchmarks and intervention tracking and measurement, to drive action from our analyses.

Grush: You've talked recently about building community. Will PAR's data and tools be available soon to more and more institutions, not just to the institutions that have been able to commit the resources to be a founding member institution or one of the institutions contributing to research during the formative stages of PAR? Will there be more options, going forward, for institutions to be involved in PAR at different levels?

Little: Definitely. During this past year PAR has been moving from being an invitational research and development undertaking to a membership-based service provider. We want to help people at all types of institutions move from angst into action! The PAR team has been moving our members to seek more insights from their analyses and to anticipate where we can provide the greatest value for our students and our campus communities. We're now standing on a foundation [that PAR has built since its inception] that gives us a chance to support members as well as institutions that may be just getting started with learner analytics.

Grush: Do you consider PAR to be mature now?

Little: Much more so than when PAR began just three and a half years ago! But of course, there's still more we can to innovate… Analytics in general and PAR in particular have matured to the point where yes, we can identify critical information about students, yes, we can predict who is at risk, and yes, we can tell you why they are at risk. We have very good evidence that this part of the process works. Now the key challenge becomes: How do we use analytics to make a difference? How do we apply them? What can we do to help our institutions to take action for our students?

PAR is creating a whole ecosystem to identify the risk factors for individual students, identify treatments, and ultimately measure success and create benchmarks for the institution. Using the same data, we can be focused on very fine detail about the individual student, or very broadly on the institution or even wider. And we can take action at any level. With new tools for data interchange, with the involvement of a wider community, and with better benchmarking, it's becoming a powerful proposition. It's maturing. It's the movement from analytics to action that will make the difference.

I'm excited to be a part of that, to create tools that catalyze the analytics movement.

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