Partner Profile: Dr. Colleen Carmean, UW Tacoma


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Dr. Colleen Carmean presented at  numerous conference presentations throughout 2016, including two where she co-presented with Civitas Learning: AASCU and WCET. This interview gives you a chance to know her better and get a glimpse into the culture change she is driving at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Serving the ‘New Traditional’ Student

UW Tacoma is the urban-serving arm of the tri-campus UW System, and as such serves predominantly older working adult students and under-represented populations.

“At UW Tacoma we serve what I call the new traditional student – the working adult, who often is a first-generation student as well,” said Carmean. “Our goal is to do everything we can to help each student succeed, and we believe to do that we have to work to really know our students.”

Carmean was intrigued with the idea of integrating analytics into the university when she learned of the work in the Civitas community a few years ago. “The piece with analytics is important as we get to know our students,” she said. “We tell stories – all of us in higher ed tend to tell stories – and the stories may have been true about our students ten years ago, but these stories are likely no longer an accurate reflection of who our current students are and the needs they bring with them. So we need to figure out how to base our initiatives on data, rather than on the stories we’ve been telling and believing.”

Policy Change in a Culture of Tradition

UW Tacoma has historically been tied to traditional on-ground instruction, but the data Carmean has surfaced showed that UW Tacoma’s working adult population actually persist at a higher percentage when allowed to take hybrid schedules that provide some online instruction. “Our culture is rich in tradition and practices. We had historically been resisting online instruction. We can see now that it is a pathway to success for many of our students. Flexible scheduling can mean an adult can focus on their job or put their kids to bed, then study.”

“If we come to understand our students need an option where they have less time away from family, then we are faced with the obligation of knowing – we have an obligation to try to help them. But that’s the easy answer – that we need to do it. The harder question to answer is how. How do we become a data culture rather than a story telling culture? The stories we tell have to be about the truth – it has to be about really knowing our students,” she said.

Culture change takes work, and her work with the Illume® app is helping her understand her students’ risk and needs better, which in turn supports the mission. “Our work with analytics supports our mission and helps us think more deeply about how to serve our students. It helps us understand how to have conversations about moving forward and about making policy and culture change.

One of her challenges in this culture change has been putting together the right team of faculty and staff to explore the data. “It takes a certain personality to really be drawn to this work. I’m working to build a team of people with tremendous intellectual curiosity and an interest in working with analytics – some from the IR team and others from across the campus. This team can’t come together and ask me what we found, they have to want to dive in and find things. We need their perspective in looking at the data.” Carmean thinks it’s interesting to see what personality types take an inclination to working with analytics and hopes one day to do some scholarly research around the topic. “Just as we are preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist yet, I’m seeking people well suited to a job that is just evolving. I think there’s real scholarship opportunities in researching and studying this.”

Carmean has the personality that enjoys exploring the data, and in fact has confessed that when the phones stop ringing at 4 p.m. she often dives into Illume and looks up realizing it’s 7 p.m. and she needs to go home and feed her dog. “It’s fascinating to ask questions and go deeper and deeper into the predictions, looking at student segments and behaviors.”

Using Data to inform Conversations

“In 2017, I’m looking forward to using Illume to better understand the vulnerable retention populations our campus has not been aware of. And I’m looking forward to having informed conversations about how we create initiatives and use our resources to change their trajectory toward success.”

Success for Carmean begins in the beginning. “We need to begin by learning how to start having these conversations with academic leaders where we can take the insights in and say, ‘Take a look… now who would have thought this?’” For example, Carmean and team are mindful that the cost of higher education is prohibitive or difficult for many under-served populations, yet Illume revealed that the student populations that have the lowest persistence are self-paying students who receive no financial aid. So she wants to share the data and have conversations with students about how to inform decisions, get enough aid to be successful, invest properly in themselves and their future, but not take on more debt than they need to.

Getting to Faster Insights

“We are a small campus – only 5,000 students. My Institutional Research team is 1.5 people and a student worker. With those resources, without Illume, I couldn’t produce the deep data dive I need to build a data culture, let alone a culture of inquiry.” Carmean can complement her on ground team’s work and research by using Illume to get to some trends and insights faster. “We did a seven-year longitudinal study – a good one – it took us six months to complete the study. We discovered that we had high GPA students leaving. Our partner success consultant called me as the report was being finalized and said ‘Colleen, I’m looking at your data in Illume and you have a high percentage of high GPA students leaving, did you know that?’ When we went into Illume the data we sought was instantly apparent – in literally minutes not months,” Carmean said.

“Now we can take this data and reach out to faculty and help them change the story they tell about not being able to help underprepared students who ultimately drop out. I can show them that 70 percent of our students have a C or better when leaving. We have to change the stories that aren’t true – let’s stop talking only about the 30 percent and figure out how to help the 70 percent. I can find them now by filtering in to the segment I’m interested in and clicking on Student Lists. I can see who they are. We can see a student with a 3.77 GPA has a low chance of persisting whom we never would have expected was at risk. And we can begin to reach out to understand the reasons why they are struggling – something the data can’t always tell us, only the person can,” she said.

Working with the populations she does, Carmean feels added pressure to get the initiatives right. “We had a chancellor who used to say if we can get our UW Tacoma population to the finish line, we’re not changing one person’s life, we’re changing generations. And if we fail and lose that person, the likelihood is tragically good that we will lose their children – especially when college is expensive. If we lose a student after two years, it’s hard for them to be a positive voice to their children. We have to succeed for that student, their family and future generations.”

Dr. Colleen Carmean

Dr. Carmean serves as the University of Washington Tacoma's strategist for emerging technologies. Her work focuses on shared knowledge architectures and enhancing the user experience (UX). She teaches applied computing. Current research includes the value of analytics in improving learner decisions and persistence. She is the 2002 EDUCAUSE NLII Fellow, a 2004 Frye Fellow, a 2006-2008 Arizona Wakonse Teaching Fellow, and a 2012 UWT Writing Fellow.

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