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2012 August 20 - 12:00 am

POV:Tech Tools Can Contribute to Data-Informed Decisions, Impact Student Success

As we focus our attention on student success and completion around the nation, and search for proven best practices to increase graduation rates, it has become clear that we are in need of systemic, revolutionary, change. We must adapt from segmented organizations which are reactive and embrace our identity as living systems and become proactive about helping students achieve their goals.

Through a year of planning as a part of the Completion by Design initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we have identified a need to help students clearly see their pathway to graduation.

At Davidson County Community College, we believe students will be much more likely to graduate if they are working towards an ultimate educational goal and understand the path they will take to get there. We are implementing early career exploration and intrusive academic advising to help students with this goal-setting and academic planning. But to truly achieve our mission, we must recognize that it cannot be accomplished by any single department or an individual advisor; it requires deep structural level change. The students must have a true support group of professionals dedicated to their success. At DCCC, we refer to that group as the student’s “success network.”

But the question becomes how does this network of individuals stay informed about a particular student’s progress, and how do they efficiently communicate with one another regarding the interventions provided to each individual student? Fortunately, there are technological
tools available today that make that communication possible.

Sinclair Community College, a member of the Ohio cadre of Completion by Design, has developed a program called My Academic Plan (MAP). As described in the Sinclair course catalog, MAP is a “prescriptive plan of courses, created with the input of an academic advisor that assists students in meeting their academic goals.”

MAP provides students with a visible pathway of courses they will take each semester leading to graduation, according to their program of study. But MAP not only informs the students; it also warns the students and anyone in their success network if they are “off-plan” and encourages them to see their advisor. This could happen if the student fails to register for a course during the appropriate term of sequence, or if they register for a course that is not in their current plan.

If students are taking and passing courses off-plan, they may be progressing, but they certainly don’t seem to have a goal in mind or any clear direction. They might be successfully treading water, but they’ll never make it to shore. This information enables advisors to be proactive, since they can make contact with those students immediately and help them stay on track.

Another technological tool we have implemented that enhances communication among each student’s success network is Starfish Retention Solutions, an early-alert system. Starfish notifies key individuals when students are first struggling in class, allowing advisors the opportunity to be proactive and provide timely interventions.

In higher education, advisors or other support professionals have traditionally been forced to wait until the end of the semester to identify those students who have failed a course, unless they have dropped out before then. Starfish helps us minimize our delay in obtaining feedback about students’ course performance. We are now communicating the expectation to faculty that they keep their grade books up to date in our learning management system so that students can be aware of their grade throughout the semester. This information is pulled into Starfish, so that their performance can be monitored by advisors and other members of the student’s success network. Student information is pulled in from other various data systems as well and stored in each student’s folder in this one central location. Starfish allows advisors to intervene much more quickly, and as we implement the system campus-wide this fall semester, we believe this will have a large effect on our student success rates.

We also believe these systems will have a tremendous impact on our part-time student population, a huge percentage of community college students across the nation. Through our work with Completion by Design, we have identified that these students are often those most in need of assistance and yet also those for whom assistance is not easily accessible. It is hardly surprising that our part-time students often struggle the most to complete, and it is certainly consistent with the national findings regarding the importance of student engagement and connection with campus resources.

But how do we provide the campus resources at a time that is convenient for the students without keeping our offices open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Both Starfish and MAP provide students with notification that can be delivered through mobile text and even Facebook, so that they can receive information about referral to campus resources such as tutoring, or other important messages from the advisor. There is no longer a need for students to be forced to take time away from work or family obligations to call the office during normal business hours just to schedule an appointment, which we know was a common loss point. Students are now able to easily communicate with faculty and advisors and students have the opportunity to schedule appointments online. They have access to the important planning tools about courses to take for their particular programs for instance and when they need to take them instead of having to rely solely on meeting with an advisor to obtain that information.

An all-too-common obstacle to data-informed decision making within community colleges, is the challenge caused by information delays due to communication gaps between departments. Even when individual departments are functioning at utmost capacity, if they are making decisions in isolation as opposed to collaborating with one another, there will be problems. When we operate in isolation, we fail to understand the impacts our actions will have on the whole system. Our colleges are living systems, and just as our own human bodies would not be able to function appropriately if the neurons and synapses were not carrying messages from our brains to each of our organs, so too is the communication among departments equally essential.

The lack of communication leads to data conflicts and system errors that prevent institutions from having meaningful reports on which to base decisions. To address this at DCCC, we have implemented a data stewardship initiative on campus with the purpose of enhancing communication across departments.

The Data Stewardship Team was formed in conjunction with the implementation of Datatel, Reporting and Operating Analytics (DROA). As we began our search for technology tools that would help us obtain the data we desired in order to make data-informed decisions we noted there was also a lack of understanding about appropriate data collection and analysis, what data we actually needed to truly evaluate the effectiveness of our programs and their impact on student learning.

As opposed to typical technology implementations, often managed solely by the IT department, we believed it was important to strategically build our internal capacity. We contracted with an external consultant, ASR Analytics, and we asked them to help us create the Data Stewardship team, not just customize the system and hand us a finished product that we would continue to have little knowledge of how to use.

We have brought academic leadership and student services staff into the process of first naming the system to be meaningful to us as an institution, DCCC Data Navigator, and then establishing data definitions and procedures we will continue to use to share data across the institution.

The sheer number of community college students who need personal interventions to successfully graduate can be overwhelming, and yet we have more tools available than ever before that enable us to help each of them accomplish their goals. These tools lead to increased student success because they increase transparency and facilitate communication.

As we aim to produce graduates who have technological competencies to succeed in our rapidly evolving global economy, we must set the example by utilizing the tools available to us to achieve our new community college mission, student completion.

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