Across the Ocean: Adopting a New Vision for IR

Recently, the Chinese AIR in Changsha, China, hosted a conference at which several AIR and OCAIR members presented sessions. AIR member Shuguang Wei was one of the major organizers of the event, which was attended by more than 600 Chinese IR professionals. eAIR spoke with Shuguang as well as several OCAIR/AIR members, including Ruan Hoe, Yuerong Sweetland, Yan Wang, and Faxian Yang, who braved the long trip to bridge the communication gap and support the rapidly developing field of IR in China.

From left to right: Yuerong Sweetland, Yan Wang, Ruan Hoe, and Faxian Yang 

eAIR: Tell us about the preparation for the Chinese AIR Conference held in Changsha, Hunan, this past July. How did AIR, OCAIR, and the Chinese AIR organization collaborate for this event? 

Yan Wang and Faxian Yang: At the 2015 AIR Forum in Denver, representatives from Chinese AIR met with OCAIR members to discuss topics related to institutional research. That conversation led to the Chinese AIR extending an invitation to the OCAIR Steering Committee to organize a delegation of members who could offer pre-conference workshops and serve as plenary speakers at the 2016 Chinese AIR International Conference. Ultimately, Ruan Hoe, Yuerong Sweetland, Faxian Yang, and I were selected to represent OCAIR at the conference. 

During the 2016 AIR Forum in New Orleans, there were plenty of opportunities for OCAIR and Chinese AIR members to work together to prepare for the event. The OCAIR chair had many detailed discussions with Chinese AIR related to workshop attendance/format and presentations. As delegates, we expressed our willingness to cooperate with Chinese AIR, and tailored our lectures and presentations to meet their requests. At the time of our travels, we already felt the fresh air from the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  

eAIR: Did you learn anything interesting about the history of the Hunan province while you were at the conference? 

Yan Wang: Yes! The University of Hunan, the conference host site, actually has 1,000 years of history. Our group went to visit the original site of this higher learning institution. Additionally, the Hunan province is the home province of Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People's Republic of China. Some of us visited the island park where a sculpture of Chairman Mao is located. 

eAIR: Please share a little bit about your plenary presentation at the Chinese AIR Conference – what was your topic and how did you tailor your presentation for your colleagues in China? 

Faxian Yang: The topic of my presentation was Assessment, Accreditation, and Accountability in the US. The presentation focused primarily on assessment due to time constraints. I introduced the history/transition of assessment, the purpose of assessment, program review, university-wide accreditation and assessment, and different assessment methods. The presentation was widely accepted by Chinese AIR members, since top education professionals in China have been paying a lot of attention to this topic recently.

Yan Wang: My presentation examined how my institution, Milwaukee Area Technical College, uses data to inform continuous improvement. I introduced this in the context of accreditation and how my institution uses the Academic Quality Improve Program (AQIP)one approach offered by our accreditation agency, the Higher Learning Commission, to advance our goal of continuous improvement. I presented the steps of AQIP, the System Portfolio, and the design and implementation of action projects. I provided examples of some action projects and how IR offices provide data to help identify issues that lead to action projects, develop an evaluation plan to use for the pilot, and assess the effectiveness of an action project by conducting survey research and statistical analyses. Based on Chinese AIR’s feedback, I changed some of my presentation examples to make them more relevant to Chinese educational context. 

Yuerong Sweetland: My topic was about online education and how it compares with the traditional face-to-face model. Given the potential concern that online education has not gained as much momentum in China’s higher education arena as it has in the U.S., I placed my focus on how online learning can be integrated into the traditional educational model to help engage (rather than distract) students, who are already immersed in technology in all aspects of their lives. In addition, I discussed the impact of the integration of online teaching/learning technology on the future of IR, focusing on IR’s leading role in data analytics. I also discussed the potential challenges that can arise with online learning, such as retention and completion, which generally is not a primary focus in Chinese higher education institutions. 

Ruan Hoe: One of my topics was Data Requirements for Ad-hoc Analysis, which was inspired by communication with my Chinese IR colleagues over the past several years. I learned that most IR offices or similar functions in China do not have their own data depositories and still heavily rely on IT to extract data from various functional areas on campus. IR still has a long way from being authorized to represent the institution as an official source of institutional statistics, as there is much resistance to provide data for IR. Based on this understanding, I provided examples to show how the importance of an IR office having its own data depository for internal/external and routine ad-hoc analyses and presented cases of ad-hoc analyses with data from IR-owned data depositories. 

eAIR: How was AIR’s Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research received by conference attendees? 

Shuguang Wei: On the opening day of the conference, former AIR Executive Director Dr. Randy Swing provided the keynote speech and introduced the Statement in great detail as the new vision for IR. Conference participants were very interested in the Statement and believe that it represents the direction for IR development in the future. Many Chinese AIR members believe that IR professionals should not only provide support in decision making for senior leaders, but also provide support to deans, department chairs, staff, and students. In 2013, the theme of the Chinese AIR conference was “IR and Student-Centered Undergraduate Education Reform,” and it was determined that IR should support this effort. Therefore, at this year’s conference, the Statement was considered the direction for Chinese IR development as well. Conference participants were also interested in the concept of the Chief IR Officer. In fact, many Chinese higher educational institutions already have this role on campus, which is responsible for planning, assessment, reporting functions, and supporting decision making. 
Shuguang Wei

eAIR: What are some challenges being experienced by our Chinese IR colleagues? Are they similar to those being experienced by IR practitioners in the U.S.? 

Faxian Yang: Since Chinese IR professionals take a very different approach than those in the U.S., they face different challenges than ours. For example, IR in China is a branch of higher education study. What they study is the history, trends, and development of education in China and other countries, especially the U.S. They have paid little attention to providing analyses and other information to senior leadership in their own universities. This is a fundamental difference between IR in America and in China. 

Ruan Hoe: Chinese colleagues have very similar challenges in terms of perceptions and IR roles in campus communities. However, IR as a decision-making tool is still very much a concept in China. Chinese IR professionals are still very much lined up with the discipline of education administration in an academic setting, such as a college of education. As a profession, IR still has a long way to go in China.

Yuerong Sweetland: A question that surfaced during the Q&A session after my plenary presentation was how can assessment and IR professionals be empowered to play important roles in using data to inform decision making? I had an interesting discussion with a Chinese colleague who faced the same kind of challenge. Even though we did not reach any specific conclusions, we agreed that it needs to be addressed through a “community of practice” approach. First and foremost, as IR (and assessment) professionals, we must be powerful storytellers who can help translate data into action plans. Secondly, it takes long-term commitment to generate and sustain culture changes. This requires the effort of an entire institution or a professional association such as AIR and Chinese AIR. Reflecting on what I learned from the conference, I wonder if perhaps a cross-cultural study would be helpful to explore how common challenges can be tackled similarly, as well as differently, across cultures.  

Yan Wang: A common theme is that IR has become more and more important to higher education institutions because of the increasing demand of accountability from society, the community, and students. However, it is a long and slow process to build the infrastructure and capacity. Some Chinese higher education institutions are trying to transform their higher education research institutions to be IR offices, and some are trying to increase the IR capacity of their staff in existing functional areas, such as office of the registrar, planning, etc. Still others are proposing to build centralized IR offices.  

The Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research provides valuable insight into the development of IR as a profession and may help Chinese IR practitioners understand the importance of “building and supporting an institutional research function” that “connotes the institution-wide use of data and analytics, and not just the products of an office of institutional research. It is my hope that the Statement helps Chinese IR professionals focus on building IR functions rather than just IR offices. 



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