GUEST COLUMN | by Martha Venn
There’s an old phrase about what happens when you assume. As Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs of Macon State College, part of the University System of Georgia, I know there is no room for assumptions in higher education—there’s simply too much on the line for students. But I can admit that Macon State made our fair share of assumptions about students, faculty, and courses in the past.
For example, there was an assumption that our highest-performing students were transferring to other four-year institutions. A second assumption was that our Freshman Year Experience (FYE) course, which we implemented three years ago, was retaining students at a high rate. A third assumption was that students who were required to complete remediation before entry as full-time, degree-seeking students would be better off in their own FYE courses.
When we acquired academic analytics tools—data and models to visualize and understand enrollment, graduation rates, and institutional outcomes tracking—to look at the data, not one of these assumptions proved to be true. We were retaining our higher-performing students. Our FYE course did not have the high success rate we thought. Placing students who required remediation in integrated FYE sections had more positive outcomes than placing them in sections by themselves.
When I joined Macon State College, the college had been flagged for having low retention rates and minimal innovation to address challenges. Seeing long-held anecdotal “truths” proved false, it became clear why our institution was struggling.
The Need for an Evidence-Based Approach
Macon State College is primarily focused on preparing students for the workforce. Many of our students are first-generation college students, have families, or work part or full time. We are also an access institution, which means we accept students who need remediation support in English and/or mathematics.
In 2012, Georgia Governor Deal announced that Georgia would become a Complete College America state, making state institutions accountable for specific metrics and benchmarks that address retention, progression, and graduation. To raise the stakes even higher, the Georgia Board of Regents was implementing performance-based funding for the first time. For the success of our students—and for the future of our institution—we needed a plan to improve.
To meet the Governor’s—and our own—expectations, we decided to become a “mission-driven” campus. Goals, strategies, and benchmarks, we determined, would from now on be driven by data. To achieve this goal, we implemented Blackboard Analytics, Blackboard’s suite of applications that provides on-demand access to metrics and data on areas including enrollment management, academic affairs, finance, and advancement.
Data pulled from Blackboard Analytics started conversations about what issues or assumptions we were making and how accurate those assumptions were. Without having these metrics, we would be flying in the dark, not knowing if what we are doing is, in fact, making a difference toward meeting our new goals.
I’d like to share several examples of how Macon State College is using Blackboard Analytics to develop a deeper understanding of our students, faculty, and courses.
One example is our math modeling course, which historically had high withdrawal and low success rates. The course was redesigned in 2009 to include interactive lectures, online homework, and a new approach to assessments. Blackboard Analytics data confirmed that withdrawals have declined and success rates have risen since the redesign.
But it’s more than just validating changes we have already made. The data also allows us to identify learning and success trends. For example, we can see withdrawal rates broken down by factors such as GPA, gender, and ethnicity. We now have the ability to identify certain kinds of people we should provide more resources for, and have used that knowledge to bring these students the tools they need to be successful. That’s powerful.
Another way we are leveraging Blackboard Analytics is with our Core Faculty Fellows program (CFF). Faculty members selected to this program have demonstrated high success rates and deep levels of connection with their students. We use Blackboard Analytics to understand why CFF faculty’s students are succeeding, and also what we can learn from the students who did not succeed in their classes.
For example, we can use data from Blackboard Analytics to answer questions like: Do CFF faculty have particular strengths or weaknesses with different student demographics? Do students who take a course from CFF faculty perform better academically? What are the retention rates for these students? Can we work with faculty to improve the use of data from Blackboard Analytics at the start of the semester so they have a better picture of the students who are in their classes?
Data from Blackboard Analytics is also helping identify success rates and patterns with individual faculty. Our aim is to better identify and align faculty teaching assignments for the freshman liberal arts core curriculum. We want our best and most engaging faculty teaching our freshmen so they stay at Macon State and are well prepared to succeed in their second year.
While the changes we have implemented since using Blackboard Analytics have been promising, we have high expectations for what we can accomplish next.
In January 2013, we will provide each dean and department chair with their own pre-built dashboards from Blackboard Analytics, showing success rates for all of their courses. With this data in their hands, deans and department chairs can begin conversations with faculty and professional advisors about what’s working and what’s not.
Our students, who often work one or more jobs, are making incredible commitments for their education, and we owe it to them to rely on more than guesses, hunches, and anecdotes to make decisions regarding their learning. The Blackboard Analytics platform is proving to be an invaluable tool for us to provide our students with the best education we can offer. With the help of Blackboard Analytics, I am proud to say that assumptions are a thing of the past at Macon State!
Marti Venn, Ph.D., is the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Macon State College. She has served in a variety of administrative roles throughout her tenure in Georgia. Dr. Venn has been in Georgia for 14 of her 16 years in academia. She is the founding Dean of the School of Education at Macon State College. Dr. Venn is leading her campus in the adoption and the use of data analytics to truly understand the students of Macon State College. She is putting in place a model that will put the data into the hands of the administrators and key faculty as they engage in initiatives to increase student success, progression, and graduation. In addition, she has served on several USG taskforces including Learning Support, USG Data Metrics for Complete College GA and most the Student Affairs policy review group. She recently presented as a panelist at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASC&U) conference in San Antonio Texas on the Alaska Project. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org