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Strategic Directions | Feature

PAR at Hobsons: Joining Research and Predictive Models with Real Time Data

A Q&A with Ellen Wagner

CT covered the Hobsons announcement this past January, 2016, of its acquisition of the PAR (Predictive Analytics Reporting) Framework. Here, we talk with Ellen Wagner, Chief Research Officer for the PAR Framework and VP for Research at Hobsons to get a brief update on the current work of PAR after its first eight months with Hobsons.

Mary Grush: Since the Hobsons acquisition of PAR, has the focus of PAR's work changed? And what has some of the initial work been, towards integrating the PAR Framework with Hobsons products?

Ellen Wagner: I'm pleased to report that PAR is doing very well in our new home. It's quite satisfying and very exciting to see how our team is growing, and that our ability to extend our work into promising new arenas is in our hands. We've had a little more than eight months to explore what can we do to connect the dots between where we've been and where we want to go, now that we are with Hobsons.

One of the key things we've been working on, and a great starting point for us, is exploring how PAR data can dovetail with what Hobsons is already doing with the Starfish platform.

PAR data has always been a great companion to help institutions find students at risk. We also identify lots of opportunities to actively address what to do for student success, by the numbers. Before the acquisition, PAR's student success matrix and intervention measurements were important outcomes of our ability to build predictive models looking at historical data on past performance — models built from research conducted on massive data collected from our member institutions.

With Starfish, we can now also look at current activity data as well. Institutions need to be able to anticipate being in just the right place at just the right time for just the right person, with just the right resources. This is a really exciting idea, clearly. Still, from a practical perspective, there are things about working with 'real time' data that are difficult — it is not easy to get, and you still have to interpret what it means. So for us, the ability to work with data that we can pull from actual activity streams via Starfish, and then tie it directly to PAR's predictive models and intervention — based on research data — is a good fit for us.

Part of this is a balance: Sometimes you need to conduct rigorous experimental research. Sometimes you just need to help the student who is sitting in front of you. PAR is focused on action research rather than basic research. Hopefully, our contribution is going to be putting information in the hands of people at the front lines of supporting students — information that they can use right now. This balance is what we are happy to explore.

It's exciting for me that Hobsons is encouraging us to extend our ongoing research agenda and what we started five years ago when we began the research and building of the PAR dataset. So, where we go from here is really very exciting.

Grush: So then, PAR research is moving forward now, as it has for five years? It sounds like the Hobsons acquisition is much more than just moving the PAR data resource into a product line.

Wagner: Oh, yes, research is still the key to our work. The more that we tell people that they should use their data, trust their data, follow their data, the more we need to make sure that the methods underlying the analyses are valid, reliable, repeatable, and generalizable.

Hobsons really appreciates the fact that PAR is committed to empirical research. In fact, we are accelerating our efforts to publish our research both in practice-based journals as well as going through the peer-review process for publishing papers and sharing presentations. 

For example, Dr. Karen Swan from the University of Illinois Springfield recently worked with my colleagues Scott James and Sandy Daston to conduct a major research study analyzing a large dataset comparing student outcomes from students taking only on-ground courses, students taking only online courses, and students taking a mixture of both. They reviewed findings from previously published studies alongside analyses conducted using 656,258 student records collected through the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework to see if it was possible to obtain a more nuanced picture of online student success than seen in those previous studies. Their work appears in the Online Learning Journal's special issue on learning analytics published this summer.

One important thing to note is that we are holding ourselves, at PAR, to the same rigorous and juried standards as our colleagues in academe. This is something that Hobsons "gets" — and long term, everyone will benefit.

Grush: Is PAR continuing to work with PAR member institutions?

Wagner: Yes, certainly. A good example of this is that the University of Hawaii System and the University of North Dakota received EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenge grants to explore Starfish and PAR integration. Many other PAR members and Hobsons customers are interested in connection points between Starfish and PAR as well.

And some of the most exciting work of all is beginning to look at what happens as students cross the chasm between high school and college. It's just wrong that 40 percent of eligible high school students don't even think about applying to go on to college. We have lots of work to do to help alleviate the friction at significant points along the lifelong education journey.

Grush: Are we getting close to hearing an announcement of the integration of the PAR Framework with Starfish? Will this be the first product integration for PAR at Hobsons?

Wagner: I don't have an announcement. I expect, before too long, we will see the strengths of PAR predictive analytics and Starfish real time data come together. I remember telling you eight months ago, when PAR was acquired by Hobsons, that we could already see PAR and Starfish "completing each other's sentences". 

This is such a great pairing — PAR being able to find the students at risk, and Starfish being able to show the activity of a particular student in real time and actually facilitate outreach to help such students. It's really the first exploration of our acquisition — I'm sure PAR will have an exciting future at Hobsons.

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