I recently participated as a member of the closing keynote panel at this year’s Higher Learning Commission (HLC) annual meeting, “Beyond the Horizon.” The Higher Learning Commission is a U.S. regional accreditation organization that is authorized to oversee postsecondary quality and provide regulatory oversight related to financial aid for institutions in their geographic region.

HLC is notable in that they have taken on the oversight of “innovative” programs, including online learning and competency-based learning programs. This often puts them at odds with the very regulators that have told them to look for innovative practices. These days, people as notable as Bill Gates describe accreditation as a barrier to innovation. As you can imagine there was a lot of reflection on the future of education.

My co-panelists included Juliet Freeland Fischer, Director of Educational Research for the Clayton Christiansen Institute, and Travis Reindl, Senior Communications Officer for Postsecondary Success for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We were charged with giving the conference attendees, who had been working hard for three days on tending to academic quality and regulatory compliance matters, something about which to get excited as they headed back to their institutions for the next year. We were asked to consider the future of education with an eye on innovation in the context of accreditation – or not. Session chair Dr. Jaqueline Eliott, President of North Arkansas College and a Member of the HLC Board of Directors moderated our discussion.

Before the session started, I sent out a tweet to frame how I was going to be approaching the conversation:

“It’s not so much what’s on the horizon. It’s how we navigate to that horizon that matters even more.” #HLC2016

With that context in mind, and considering lessons learned from PAR data regarding our student success communities of practice, I reflected on five key points during our conversation:

  1. Predictions of student risk that are not accompanied by taking actions to mitigate risks are of marginal value. In fact, knowing who might be at risk and NOT being able to do something about it could almost be seen as a risk, in and of itself.
  2. It is possible to scale innovation by using common definitions and commonly available data. PAR has been recognized by Gartner Research (2013, 2014, 2015) for scaling innovation through our openly published common data definitions. We continue to demonstrate the value and impact of common definitions for contributing valid, reliable repeatable and generalizable research.
  3. We don’t do data snake-oil. PAR emerged from and continues to depend on our communities of educational researchers and scholars. We submit our work to present at conferences that are juried by peers. We do the same with publications reporting our results. We work with our institutional partners to contribute empirical evidence of outcomes and intervention impact and efficacy. We follow the rules of the academy: IRB-reviewed, clearly articulated research questions, recognized methods, peer review at formative and summative points in exploration.
  4. PAR is as dedicated to “little r” research – focus groups, surveys, evaluations, A/B tests – as we are to “big R” research of null hypothesis testing and exploratory analyses. Evaluative results to inform practice and extend work on a new technology feature can be far more immediate than a 10-year longitudinal study. We actively work with our partners to gain insights on how to do a better job of advising, or scheduling or distribution of financial aid or any number of really pragmatic decisions by taking a look at a dashboard, or a watch-list.
  5. The biggest risk to innovation in the academy is self doubt. Educators always hear that innovation has to do with new technology or bundled services and new business models, and that innovation is “going to disrupt.” I noted that those doing the hard work of supporting student success need to remind themselves that innovation is “using human creativity and ingenuity to solve problems in new ways.” Every educator in the room is a creative problem solver, and yet most would not look to themselves as the source of innovation in our institutions. We need to change that perception.

I shared that the way we are working to change that perception is by providing our members, customers, partners and stakeholders with evidence, so they are more confident in their decision-making, more accurate in their effectiveness of services and support and more actionable in their prescriptions for student success. We think that people can make better decisions about the educational opportunities that they and their families make throughout life when they have resources and tools to inform, manage and support making those decisions.

While data silos exist we believe it is possible to navigate between and among the silos. Just as PAR gave us the opportunity to think about creating a metaphorical Rosetta Stone of student success data, I’ve been thinking a lot about common-gauge railways and figuring out the transcontinental railroad of student success data, with hubs at each of the big important transition points in the higher education pipeline.

Hobsons has a remarkable opportunity for collaborating with educational stakeholders at each point in the learning to life value chain. We believe that the future belongs to he or she who can make the best decisions about their education, and intend to be the data partner to support better decisions from K-12 education through career and professional development.

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