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Using Data for Smart Choices: The Hobsons Acquisition of the PAR Framework

A Q&A with Ellen Wagner and Stephen Smith

We've followed the growth of the PAR (Predictive Analytics Reporting) Framework from its beginnings as a research project in 2011 on how to support student success with shared data resources. Initially involving a handful of institutions, today PAR is a mature framework with a massive federated dataset, many research assets and sophisticated tools, and dozens of participating member institutions. Hobsons announced its acquisition of PAR this month, and the PAR team is already in Arlington for the onboarding process. CT spoke with Ellen Wagner, who is now Chief Research Officer for the PAR Framework and VP for Research at Hobsons; and Stephen M. Smith, President of Advising and Admissions Solutions at Hobsons, for their views on the acquisition.

Mary Grush: Ellen, could you describe in very general terms what PAR has been able to accomplish over these past few years?

Ellen Wagner: PAR began as a big, audacious idea — a small group of educators, chatting informally after a conference wondered "how cool" it would be if only we could start leveraging data for education in ways similar to what we were seeing in other sectors. We decided to try to create a single federated dataset to use predictive analytics to learn more about student loss and momentum. PAR started with data from 6 higher education institutions… then another 10 institutions… then even more additional schools, and so on, as we grew our dataset. In addition to providing predictive models and benchmarks, we began looking at intervention measurement, and we undertook research projects with several institutions in order to learn how to get real about our data expectations.

 Yes, we were able to create that huge dataset — frankly, this was something that some people didn't think we as practicing educators could do — and yes, we were able to do some amazing predictive modeling. But we learned so much. Perhaps our most important lesson was, that even if you can do great predictive modeling, you must have an action plan — or what you have discovered is of limited value.

Of course, building the federated dataset was the first major accomplishment, but along with that, we created and openly published common data definitions with our members, so that as new institutions joined PAR, they would already have a common framework they could readily use. I don't think we truly realized initially just how important that point would be.

Another thing that we did was to focus on readily available data, from our members. We looked for data variables that could be found for all the students at each institution with which we were working. Then, we commonly defined them. This normalized data and ensured fidelity across the dataset. Because we had data for everyone, and due to the fact that we had common data definitions, we found ourselves in a really good position to create generalizable findings — generalizable and useful for many multiple institutions.

So, for example, when we worked with University of Maryland University College, which was interested in finding ways to predict the 4-year college success of community college transfer students, we asked the University of Hawaii system if they could replicate UMUC's findings. Lo and behold, they could, because the PAR data was generalizable. What normally would have needed to be done with inferential statistics now could be done by simply identifying patterns in the PAR data. Institutional comparisons became possible with new reliability. We don't have to infer outcomes and results — we can see what's actually going on. Long term, this gives us the opportunity to scale more effectively. And this will have significant implications now that PAR assets will be used in Hobsons's work.

And the PAR accomplishment that I think I am most proud of is that we created a space where educators who know that they have to use data differently, and are trying figure out where to leverage data, now have a safe place to approach this work. And, they can work with other institutions and colleagues at other institutions — colleagues who all care about student success. When you have institutions working toward the the same overall objective — student success — and partnering on how to get there, you can do amazing things. Data is opening up for educators in new ways that were not seen previously.

Grush: Given PAR's accomplishments, we come to the acquisition… Could you both comment a little on how that came about?

Wagner: It really started with our members and customers. At PAR, we first heard the idea as we were working with our member institutions — including the University of North Dakota, which was the first to come to us and say, "We want you to integrate Starfish with PAR." At that point we didn't realize that Starfish and Hobsons were in discussions about an acquisition of Starfish.

So, of course we agreed to look into the idea of integrating Starfish with PAR to see what might be possible. And as we did, we heard from more members, including the University of Hawaii, and we became very intrigued with the possibilities of working with Starfish. There were ways in which Starfish and PAR complemented each other — almost like finishing each others' sentences, if you will. Ultimately, we realized that we should have a bigger conversation… And then, Stephen, you and Beth Davis, and David Yaskin, and others became involved in conversations. Stephen, I think you should pick it up here…

Stephen Smith: That's exactly how it happened. I will add that at the same time we were talking with Starfish, we were really impressed with the work that PAR was doing. With the Hobsons acquisition of Starfish, it became one of our company's three major product lines at the time. And finally, we turned to the possibility of acquiring PAR.

When we looked at PAR from an acquisitions standpoint, the important thing, to us, was to make sure that we could provide a great environment for PAR to continue the important work that it was doing — while also taking the insights that are being discovered by the PAR team, and making them immediately actionable for our customers.

The first case would be the academic advisors who are using Starfish… followed over time by users of other Hobsons platforms as well. The advantage is that we have practitioners, say, in the advising office who use the capability within Starfish to connect students to resources on campus in order to make them more successful. And, to inform those recommendations, we can now use the analysis that PAR offers, so that we know and can be sure the interventions that academic advisors are prescribing are really the most effective ones.

Universities can now short circuit the experimentation that would have been needed before. Rather than cycling students through several different things that might help them, advisors can focus them right away on the things that we know work.

Grush: So, with the PAR resources, Hobsons customers will have new tools to use and new insights to leverage… How would you characterize the new experience the PAR membership will have?

Smith: First, the PAR membership will become part of the Hobsons community — a benefit to not only the existing PAR members, but also to future, new PAR members who will join the PAR Framework.

I think this is also where the scale and resources of Hobsons can help accelerate work on the PAR Framework. As a result, PAR will be able to broaden the areas of exploration going on within PAR.

We also have, across our Naviance, Radius, and Starfish platforms, about 12K education institutions across a hundred countries, that use Hobsons resources to help students make better education decisions. We obviously want to inform that with PAR insights as they plan which activities are most impactful for students and the institutions that enroll them, to drive the kinds of outcomes those students are trying to achieve.

I think this is the connection point, where the intellectual power of PAR meets the tangible, practical, day-to-day activities that happen today across Naviance, Radius, and  Starfish. This is how we will be expanding the level of impact that PAR can have.

Wagner: We knew we needed to be actionable, and we knew we would have a lot of steps to take to get there, connecting predictions to prescriptions. But as the acquisition came about we realized that we didn't have to do it the hard way: Actionability is a place where Hobsons excels. This was one of those points that made it so obvious to us that the acquisition was a great idea.

Grush: Stephen, can you describe the organizational structure after the inclusion of PAR?

Smith: Beth Davis will retain responsibility as CEO of PAR, reporting to me. PAR will operate as a division of Hobsons, and it will have both the resources of Hobsons behind it as well as the autonomy to be able to continue to execute on what PAR was doing prior to its acquisition.

Grush: I understand that the entire PAR team is moving along with the acquisition. That speaks volumes of how they feel about their work with PAR, and it says a lot about how they feel about the fit with Hobsons. Ellen, will the roles in PAR change?

Wagner: For many of the PAR team, our roles will not change. In my case, I will be less directly involved in the product development. — But I think I have the best job right now! —  I get to take the big ideas from PAR, help establish a student success research agenda for Hobsons, and look at how we can apply insights and findings across the entire Hobsons product line. We have a community of scholars in the PAR membership to inform that process. I've been in education my entire career, and I have to tell you this is one of the most exciting things for me: a partnership with educators and software professionals focused on raising the bar for student success.

Grush: Finally, Stephen, can you describe how the Hobsons products and mission will be enhanced with the addition of PAR?

Smith: If you want to distill the essence of Hobsons products in a few words, we think about our job as helping students connect learning to life. What we saw with the acquisition of PAR, is the opportunity to do more of that. The extent to which we help students make better decisions, and help students stay connected to what they are trying to accomplish in school, is how much we are going to help them be more successful.

We're really excited, when we look at the big picture and what we want for the 12 or 13 million students we reach. We want to make sure we are in the best possible position to help them make smart choices, and that is what PAR is going to help us do. 

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