Dr. Linda Baer has been leading conversations on analytics in higher education across the U.S. for the last several years, including a recent three-part workshop (with Don Norris) at University of Maryland University College’s Learning Analytics Summit. As a researcher, author, consultant, and former provost, she brings clarity and a unique multi-disciplinary perspective to the work on analytics in higher education.
“Linda… Linda! You have analytics! We need some of those!”
– a college administrator upon seeing Linda Baer at a conference
As humorous as the image conjured may be, it’s not unusual for Baer to find colleagues acknowledging that they know they need to be implementing analytics at their institutions, but are unsure about where to start, or the factors to take into consideration when deciding who among their staff should be included.
“We see it all the time – well meaning administrators or faculty come back from a conference with the latest new software or tool,” said Baer. “They saw it in a demo and thought it would help them. But then they get back to their campus and often find themselves stymied at implementation, and unsure who on their campus to include.
Rethinking & Realigning Institutional Policies & Processes
Culturally, we are at crossroads in higher education,” explains Baer. “What is clear is the need for rethinking, realignment, and reinvention of institutional policies and practices around a culture of student success through the intelligent use of analytics,” she said. “A good place to start is by simply creating an inventory of all of the initiatives, apps and tools in play.” That means bringing together people and information from Student Affairs, Institutional Research, Information Technology, Academic Affairs, Admissions and more. “As these collaborative conversations take hold, universities and colleges typically find themselves quite surprised by how much is going on and how little knowledge about departmental data and initiatives are shared across cross-functional teams says Baer. “Each department can typically benefit in some way from data the other departments are gathering. It’s eye opening for them. Sometimes they find they are still paying for things no one is using any longer, or that didn’t have the lift they needed. These collaborations lend new insights and ideas and improvement almost immediately,” said Baer.
“We need to absolutely move away from the old school way of doing business. To be successful today and tomorrow we must build collaborations around analytics. We have to move from conversations around descriptive analytics – the I can tell you what happened conversations – to predictive analytics – the I can tell you what will happen if I do or do not make this intervention at this designated time to this person conversations”
Culture change says Baer, takes courage, and courage takes leadership. She is embarking on a journey to lead conversations, sessions and workshops in 2015 designed to help leaders build and empower cross-functional teams, and to create an organizational capacity and culture for analytics. She shared a few of the topics from her upcoming work.
“It sounds trite, but there really is an A-B-C approach that works, and is memorable,” said Baer.
Baer acknowledges that university and college leaders work very hard and want to find an approach that will help them connect the right dots in the right ways. She suggests focusing on six things to start. “Accountability, assessment, analytics, access, authenticity and accreditation are all deeply connected – they are not separate and diverse things,” says Baer. “When we think along the integrated lines Peter Ewell suggests, we can see the bigger picture of how to use data,” said Baer. “Accountability means you are hitting the right targets – like those set by Achieving the Dream, Completion by Design and others. Assessment ensures you are setting the right targets. What do you do when you find out the target is weak? Baer says analytics can help us determine the appropriate interventions to build engagement, and get us to stronger targets.
In thinking about retention initiatives, Baer champions loyalty to access. “We have to remember why we got in the business of building colleges and universities. We can’t forget access in our efforts to improve retention. Sure, we can improve retention easily – only admit the best students – but how does that serve the greater good? We need to find ways to improve retention through better partnerships, programs, and engagement so we can improve the possibility for student success. That, says Baer, takes authenticity. “When we get to the courageous leadership part of this equation, and we will, authenticity will be critical,” she said.
Accreditation plays the important role of quality assurance while focusing on student outcomes. Together, assessment is the what we measure, accountability are the targets and stakeholders expectations, analytics provide the tools to describe and predict outcomes and accreditation forms a foundation to assure quality and focus on students.
Baer suggests a build, buy, buddy and borrow approach. “Budgets – another B – will always be a problem,” said Baer. “There’s never a good year. I was a provost and I can attest that the budget is a daily struggle for college and university leaders. They have to figure out what they have, and then, after assessing that, figure out what they need. That’s when the buy vs. build conversations need to happen. Many universities can build a good product or app but can’t bring it to scale for broad implementation, so buying often makes more sense. For others, it’s a question of integrating with existing products so it may be a combination of buy and build. It’s my hope that more vendors will create collaborative services so a university can bring in a community college transfer partner, for example, in a buddy style program that makes services affordable for a smaller, less resourced school.”
Baer says the best advice is to go back again to the cross-functional teams and work through the strategies to bring stronger capacities across the institution. “By creating conversations with Institutional Research, Information Technology Student Affairs, Faculty, Students, Provosts, Vice Presidents, Presidents and Chancellors all at the table it will become more apparent, more quickly which direction is best on the buy and/or build question. It may also bring up some unique ideas for the buddy and borrow options where open source tools can be added to the mix.”
As has become obvious, Baer is ardent advocate for collaboration. “Partnering is becoming more, not less important,” she said. “ That’s one of the things that excited me about Civitas Learning and the community it is building,” said Baer. “Students live across many environments and we need to take that into account by creating robust K20 partnerships among leadership. When you read the Horizon Report for Higher Education 2014 and learn about the growing trends including personalized education, learning analytics, and virtual learning environments it’s even more important.”
Courage plays a big role in building effective organizational capacities for analytics according to Baer. “It takes courage to say ‘our structure is failing these people and we need to change.’ We need to reward leaders for being courageous – so they can lead rather than merely manage.
Culture is probably the most important component according to Baer. As Peter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy over breakfast.” Culture includes the capacity to understand and embrace the environment of evidence and inquiry, the ability to have regular institutional dialogues about what’s most important and what’s not, and the review and establishment of policies and practices that support and sustain the change that is required.
One of the challenges is the people typically trained for leadership positions in higher education are not the statisticians and mathematicians, said Baer. “Leaders are realizing the tremendous power in deepening their use of predictive analytics. It’s the people who gather the data, understand the data, act on the data, and continue to assess the data who have the power to say ‘these things are working for our students and we need to continue investing in them. These things are not working and we need to determine why we are investing in them.’ But it’s challenging for leaders. We need to share ROI (return on investment) calculators for example. If someone says they can’t afford analytics, that probably means they need to assess what they are not doing to improve student success without a strong analytics environment. When every dollar counts, improving the data-based decision making is an investment that is well made.”
Baer is planning workshops for the Spring of 2015 for leaders focusing on transformative change. “Transformative change is where the collaborative teams live,” she said. “It’s a courageous leap forward from routine change. Leaders like Javier Minyares (UMUC), and Chris Bustamante (Rio Salado) get this – they’ve created a whole culture around this. Colorado State University is also doing a great job of creating a blend of tools in a combination that is transformative — structuring to learning, while systemically aligned to policies and strategies. They have an unshakable focus on student learning across the curriculum and co-curriculum,” she said.
As Baer travels the nation researching and sharing findings, she’s seeing three trends surfacing at the end of 2014 and moving into 2015. “First, I’m seeing far more focus and impetus on analytics and data-driven decision making than even a year ago. Second, I’m seeing more campuses understand that careful evaluation and strategic purchasing of tools is beginning to make a significant difference in the persistence and completion agenda. And finally, I’m seeing more leaders optimizing a powerful return on investment as they understand the transformative power of analytics to create positive and sustainable change in their student success initiatives.