Moving from Understanding to Actionable

By Matthew Anson, Associate Director for Institutional Research and Assessment at the University of Lowa

Matthew Anson, Associate Director for Institutional Research and Assessment at the University of Lowa

Barbara Walvoord in her practical guide, Assessment Clear and Simple, defined assessment in higher education as “the systemic collection of information about student learning, using the time, knowledge, expertise, and resources available in order to inform decisions that affect student learning.” While many knowledgeable readers may focus on the “systemic collection” portion of her definition, the better effort can be spent pondering the “resources available” component. Assessment professionals are often limited by readily available resources. Often technology can be harnessed to make up for what our offices lack in time and people power, but truly it is only the past five years or so that the tools necessary to drive understanding have been embraced within the intense pace of innovation.

"The ability to break information out of the silos in which it is generally found, and make it more widely available than what can typically be found in a paper report, has the potential to turn even the most modest data into actionable insights capable of institutional transformation"

Collecting and analyzing data about student learning experiences will only get an institution so far toward meeting desired outcomes without adopting multiple methods for sharing those insights. Within our profession, sharing information typically has been done through the creation of spreadsheets, presentation slides, and paper-based reporting. While efficient and productive (historically speaking), the vast amount of energy and time that is dedicated to these projects only allowed our offices to support a limited number of constituencies within our institutions, often this being someone at the level of a provost or possibly even the president. While this model most likely still exists at many institutions, it hinders the power of proactive change by limiting the access of information that could inform decisions at multiple levels.

Luckily the private sector, in its unquenchable thirst for technological evolution, has created tools that can now be harnessed to allow assessment professionals to highlight the findings of their research more efficiently. Data democratizing technology, and the companies that make them, have taken dramatic steps in recent years to bring decision makers closer to the information that they require to make positive change. The ability to break information out of the silos in which it is generally found, and make it more widely available than what can typically be found in a paper report, has the potential to turn even the most modest data into actionable insights capable of institutional transformation.

To highlight the impact of data democratization in higher education today the reader can search the internet for “university data dashboards” and be inundated in both the number and variety of reports and visualizations that higher education institutions are publishing to highlight their work. Everything from routine compliance reporting, to in-depth analyses of how students experience institutional climate, to the performance of funds that a foundation may hold in its portfolio is available and typically accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It may be easy to overlook now, but not too long ago the information contained in these dashboards was only accessible to those constituencies that were in close proximity (perhaps physical proximity) to the report or the person who collected and aggregated the data. This change alone has had so many sweeping implications for higher education that it would be folly to attempt to enumerate them here. Suffice it to say that the adoption of these technologies and methodologies grants us, as assessment professionals, the power to become better advocates for change and equity within our campuses.

Weekly Brief

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