Data Fellows Program: Getting Data into the Right Hands

Dhushy Sathianathan is Interim Associate Vice President for Academic Planning at California State University-Long Beach. In this role, he has championed an effort to engage a group of individuals across campus to empower a wider group of users – including faculty, staff, and administrators in the colleges/departments and units – to make better use of data and evidence to drive student success. eAIR spoke with him about these “data fellows,” who come from all over campus and meet twice monthly to share ideas.

Dhushy.JPGeAIR: What led to the creation of this program and what problem(s) were you trying to solve?

The Data Fellows program was created to fill a need internally. We had data-rich pockets, but users were not always savvy enough to take advantage of the data and ask the right questions. We were also plateauing in the ability to make additional progress, because the easy problems had already been tackled. The next level of challenges are far more complex and data needs to be tailored to each unit’s needs, and we discovered that staff, faculty, and administrators all look at data differently. Data were being pushed out, but many users did not know what do with it. The program is helping us to rely less on “data pushes,” in which our offices were supplying what they thought units needed in the canned formats. Instead, we are now turning to more of a “data pull” culture, in which units are gathering data they need to make decisions in ways that best work for them. The basic goal is to target CSULB’s graduation rates and achievement gaps. We need to break down barriers to data access and allow all users the right to retrieve and use the data to level the playing field.

eAIR: How are you identifying and recruiting the data fellows?

As this is a university-wide effort, we asked each college dean to identify a faculty member, critical staff member(s), and associate dean who can contribute to the data fellows group, but also train other personnel within their unit. They are creating unit sub-teams which become a learning community representing the functions their unit is tasked with performing.

eAIR: What is the role of the institutional research office in the program?

The IR office acts as a participant within the group, helping to guide the data fellows and provide workshops on each of the data sets that exist. IR learns from the team about what each team needs and works to develop the business intelligence required. It’s essential that the program engages the whole campus, as it has been vital to have buy-in from provost-level leadership to set a framework for the discussions. This is especially true because faculty buy-in is also essential, as they are on the front lines working with students.

eAIR: What does success look like for the data fellows program and how do you measure it?

Success would be that IR recalibrates how we look at data for the future, and that each college or unit uses data in new ways. We need to create what our fellows need to be successful in the 21st century. If we can use data at the unit level to make decisions, then we are really making progress. We are confident that the data fellows’ efforts are helping to move the needle, but we have faculty developing an assessment plan to more rigorously measure the success of this project.

eAIR: Can you offer any specific examples of wins that the fellows program has had so far?

Many users (all the way up to leadership teams in the units) had never used the data sets, so now there are frequent “aha” moments. For example, in looking across large data sets, teams can see trends for the first time in how their students are graduating, switching majors, or excelling in specific areas. Teams hear from each other about strategies for using data, like finding students who need targeted support in their majors or determining where to focus advising efforts.

For example, the academic affairs team has identified students who could graduate in four years simply by taking additional courses, up to six units, in their final summer. The team used this dataset of students to run a campaign to encourage these students to file for graduation, using the incentive of free tuition for the additional courses. Out of 99 students, the 35 who were eligible for this benefit were able to complete their coursework and file for graduation. This campaign is expected to improve the four-year graduation rate by 3 to 5 percent. 

Fellows are also learning about new tools using Excel, YouTube, and Lynda.com. Many team members are excited about what they can accomplish by being empowered to do things themselves, asking the right questions, and customizing data sets. The cross-unit teams are a win in themselves, because they bring together people from the same unit who might not otherwise have occasion to learn from each other. Participants show up early to the bi-weekly meetings and engage in conversation, which helps shape the discussion for that day. They also stay late to discuss topics across colleges and units. This demonstrates the real value of the effort, because the cross-talk conversations that happen around the meeting time are often far more important than the “set” meeting agenda.

 

 

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