Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Data Competency

Periodically in higher education there are "movements" that drive behavior.  For example, I frequently hear from higher education professionals that they are working on being more "collaborative" with other institutions of higher education.  These "movements" often include terms that represent the focus of the "movement".  For example, assessment and evaluation are terms that are frequently uttered by professional in higher education.  Recently the term pathways , guided pathways, intrusive advising and data literacy have emerged as terms to represent the latest "movements".  

These movements and terms are frequently based upon research that identifies best practice.  These are important movements that administrators need to attune to and consider.  However, I have found that for administrators, faculty and staff who have been a part of higher education for many years, the terminology becomes challenging.  Why?  Because often these terms have been around equally as long and have been used in previous movements.  Consequently, the use of terminology and being very clear about what the terms mean within the current context of higher education and at one's institution is particularly important for ensuring clear communication.

"Data-driven decision making" is a term that has been around quite some time in higher education. The focus and use of data in higher education administration is not a new movement, but one that is a bit more timeless than some of the other fads of the day.  That is why the utilization of data by administrators is one of the leadership principles.  I do not see it becoming one of the fads that will ebb and flow like other movements in higher education.  Because of the timeless nature of "data-driven decision making" you may assume you are deeply familiar with its use and application.  However, have you ever stopped to contemplate what that means for your organization or what that looks like at your organization?

Prior to becoming a president at a community college I served as a professor of education at a university.  As part of my responsibilities I was to conduct research and engage in creative activities. In research there is a debate about the value qualitative versus quantitative data.  As a young instructor in higher education is was clear to me that there was a greater value place on quantitative data. Consequently, when I moved into administrative roles it was almost a natural for me to begin to use data to help inform my decisions.  However, just like research, there is a limit to what quantitative data provides. Consequently, the the discussion about the value of quantitative for qualitative data remained.  Other questions surfaced as well.  Questions about validity and reliability, distribution, and post-hoc analysis.  Rarely is a data strategy developed prior to the surfacing of a question or decisions.  Consequently, my research experiences only carried me so far in helping me figure out how best to approach data-driven decisions.

Using data to inform decisions as an administrator has taught me a more realistic approach.  It is not a matter of qualitative versus quantitative data, it is about data literacy.  "Data literacy is the ability to collect, manage, evaluate, and apply data, in a critical manner". (1)  Data literate educators:
  • know the different kinds of data that exist and which kind of data to use for which decision
  • evaluate the accuracy and sufficiency of each kind of data they will use
  • transform data from a variety of sources (classroom, school, district, state) into actionable information to guide decisions
  • hold themselves accountable for ethical generation, interpretation, and application of assessment data (2)
I have found that utilizing data to inform decisions is valuable, but even more valuable when the data is examined by a team.  Consequently, I find that I share data with my executive team when we are considering an institutional wide decision.  The multiple perspectives looking at the data provide a rich conversation that leads to an informed critique of the data.  This critique coupled with the multiple perspectives about the decision or issue at hand more often than not leads to a better decision than when the decision is made in isolation or the data is examined in isolation.  

Consequently, when I hire for positions, I often assess one's experience and comfort with data. Generally someone's comfort or experience with data isn't a hire or don't hire skill, but it is a skill I want to know about.  If someone doesn't have the experience with data I want to know about their comfort with data.  Understanding these perspectives help me understand how a prospective hire will fit with a team that does have a high commitment to data-driven decision making.  


(1) Ridsdale, C., Rothwell, J., Smit, M., et.al. "Strategies and Best Practices for Data Literacy Education".  http://www.mikesmit.com/wp-content/papercite-data/pdf/data_literacy.pdf.  Accessed, May 29, 2017.
(2) Dyer, K. (2014). "Data Literacy - What it is and How it Differs from Assessment Literacy". https://www.nwea.org/blog/2014/data-literacy-differs-assessment-literacy/. Accessed, May 29, 2017.

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