Society has been moving toward greater reliance on technology, immediate data, and predictive analytics in nearly every aspect of life. This has become especially noticeable this year as medical experts, government leaders, and citizens monitor COVID-19. In higher education, we depend on accurate, timely, and relevant data for enrollment management in relation to recruiting new students and ensuring successful persistence of current students. In fact, student success writ large depends on data-informed decision making across the campus. Faculty and administrators use data to improve the quality of programs and seek the most effective use of resources. To these ends, IR professionals not only provide the right data to campus clients and deliver research-based solutions to campus decision makers, but also function as educators to those we serve. This role is more or less formal depending on institutional context, but it is a responsibility held by everyone in the field.
There are several ways that IR professionals can educate campus colleagues
First, it is helpful to inform campus constituents about what IR does. Getting beyond the intimidating myths fostered by compliance driven cultures or the hazy fog of vague assumptions about IR as a mere technocratic function of bureaucratic administration is an important requisite to removing barriers to understanding. For example, while faculty and staff may have a general idea about IR, it is important that they understand some of the critical operations of institutional research at the college or university, like the annual cycle of reporting. Thus, one option is to post an annual reporting calendar online or send the calendar to a wide range of colleagues across campus. Working with IT or the campus webmaster to integrate the reporting calendar onto an easily accessible constituent-facing page can produce significant returns in overall campus knowledge of IR operations.
A second example of educating the campus is to develop a collection of various types of information about IR and make this available to campus clients. One such item could be a glossary. To illustrate, many have heard the term “FTE” mentioned, but how many are aware that FTE can have different meanings? A glossary that identifies institutional, state, and federal terms and definitions would be very valuable to the campus family. Another useful document that the IR shop can produce and make available to the larger campus community is an institutional research handbook. Such a handbook might include information such as a philosophy of IR (looking to AIR’s Statement of Aspirational Practice for IR is a good way to approach this), a history of IR at one’s institution, research and reporting timelines, relevant resources, and other helpful information. A handbook is a more time- and labor-intensive product than a glossary, but the return on investment in relation to stakeholder knowledge of IR functions and processes is significant.
Third, IR can teach campus peers by spending time with them. Whether this involves occasional workshops, panels, or informal lunch sessions, real “face time” can be especially helpful. IR staff can provide orientation talks about what they do and invite campus colleagues to ask questions. IR can voluntarily attend meetings even if not a standing member of a committee or task force so that if any questions come up, the IR representative can either clarify information or offer to collect the data. IR’s presence in various work groups can be quite helpful. If the IR unit’s institution is receptive to the idea and adequate resources are available, a professional development event or course led by IR is also an exciting way to directly provide education on the work of IR, and it allows for recognition and celebration of those who participate through innovative credentials like digital badges or competency certificates.
Similarly, IR professionals can educate the general public. One of the most common ways is by providing open access to selected documents on the IR website. To be sure, the fact book is likely the most popular such document. Fact books may be available as a single downloadable PDF/print document or in sections or chapters. With 24/7 online access from multiple devices today, people generally prefer to use an electronic fact book. Electronic/digital fact books are, by nature, interactive and designed for viewing on screens. While some digital fact books are created by hand from coders, many IR offices take advantage of visualization apps such as Tableau or Power BI.
Social media also offers an often untapped avenue for IR to educate the public on matters relevant to institutional research, both in terms of data about the particular institution and higher education in general. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other emerging social media applications do not have to be the exclusive domain of enrollment marketing and admissions. One simple approach to this is to register a Twitter account for one’s IR office (with appropriate approval, of course) and develop a calendar of scheduled tweets with relevant statistics from collected data, especially institutional surveys that offer interesting data and promote the strengths of the school.
Another way that IR offices educate the general public is by posting links to original surveys of reported data to federal and state agencies. IPEDS and state accountability reports are public information, so it makes sense for IR offices to either make these documents available on their own websites or provide links to where public visitors can locate them. One advantage of doing this is that the IR office can then provide relevant commentary on how their respective institution fits into the context of the linked report(s), and it allows for pointing directly to reports that highlight institutional distinctions.
Last, but not least, IR professionals can educate the public through an open invitation to request data. An online request form is commonly used to collect data requests. There may be restrictions on external freedom of information requests, but providing summary level, aggregate data descriptive of the institution is useful to informing the general public about what makes the institution unique.
IR staff serve a valuable support role to the leadership of their respective institutions. Even though IR procedures might not be the most glamorous or exciting activities, IR fulfills a strategic function that can impact the direction of the institution for years to come. It is important that IR professionals offer campus stakeholders (whose familiarity with institutional research may fall on a spectrum of very little to a great deal of knowledge) the opportunity learn more and engage with all that IR does to advance institutional priorities and promote student success. It is also critical that IR professionals take more time to consider their responsibilities as public educators at a time when the future of higher education is so tenuous.