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Amelia Parnell on Data as a Conversation Starter

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 10

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Amelia Parnell, Vice President for Research and Policy at NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. They discuss her role at NASPA as well as her new book, You Are a Data Person: Strategies for Using Analytics on Campus.

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Jack Suess: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack Suess, vice president of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden, associate provost at the University of Pittsburgh.

Each episode we welcome a guest from in or around higher education technology as we talk about repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner in support of the institutional mission.

Jack: Today, we're joined by Amelia Parnell, Vice President for Research and Policy at NASPA, a National Association for Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education. Amelia is also part of our EDUCAUSE community serving as an EDUCAUSE board member. Welcome Amelia.

Amelia Parnell: Thank you for the invitation.

Cynthia: Nice to meet you, Amelia. So we really want to talk about your book and the analytics revolution. But first, why don't you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your career, maybe your work at NASPA and perhaps a little bit about how you became involved in EDUCAUSE?

Amelia Parnell: Sure. So my title at NASPA is Vice President for Research and Policy, which really covers a lot of ground. But if I had to give the short version, I'd say that my typical day involves looking at issues and topics that are centered on the student experience and specifically professionals who support students. those professionals often we would say work in the vision of student life or student affairs. that could cover everything from how students are doing academically to how they're integrating with the social environment on campus or how their financial pursuits are going. And it also touches on a lot of larger, higher education themes, so health and wellbeing, and just how students are really experiencing college at a very difficult time, but also a very promising time.So some of it is research, some of it is policy and advocacy. Some of it is just truly association business, I like all of it. Prior to that, I worked at another association, the Association for Institutional Research. And as Jack mentioned, I actually am having a great time serving on the EDUCAUSE board. So if there's a theme of association work, I'd say that's where I've spent a lot of my time over the last decade. And I really enjoyed it.

Jack: So Amelia, I just finished your book and the title is, You Are a Data Person: Strategies for Using Analytics on Campus. And I wanted to say that what I really appreciated about the book was that it's looking deeply at the human side and identifies roles and opportunities for everyone to both sort of contribute to the process. Maybe you bring context or domain experience, but it also gives identifies opportunities for personal growth. And I'm sort of curious, what prompted you to write the book and how is the book being received?

Amelia Parnell: Well, I'll start with the second question and say that I think the book has been received exceptionally well. And for that I'm so grateful because when I sat down to write the book, I wanted it to be relatable. I wanted it to be practical and I wanted it to be inspiring. And so about halfway through kind of sketching out what I wanted the book to include. I got this idea that I needed to do some interviews. And when I proposed the book, I did not have the interview part in there in the scope, but the more I kept writing kept thinking, kept writing. I had this feeling that I needed to test some of the things that I was saying with people in the field. And so when you read the book, you see there's a lot of quotes throughout from professionals at varying levels of experience, to varying types of institutions.And I think that added the inspiration part. I find that when people come to me and say, the book was really easy to read and understand, I really have to say, that's partly attributable to those conversations where I got to interpret a lot of how they were experiencing their daily work and describing how they use data. In terms of why I titled the book that way and the inspiration for the book. I honestly wanted something that had a different frame on how we can use data. And oftentimes because we had to use data for reasons that might relate to accountability or transparency or strategic planning, sometimes the narrative is that, oh, we got to do this data work. And oh, I don't want to do this assessment stuff. And, oh, I haven't taken a stats class in so long. And so at some point after hearing a lot of people say things like that, then of course me having a background that is a little bit more closely connected to data, I was always saying, but it can be good. And you are a data person. Because usually someone would say, "I'm not a data person". Jack does our assessment work or Cynthia does our stats stuff. And I'm like, "well, that's not all of it". You know, there's qualitative data, there are a lot of other uses. And so I really just wanted to write a book that would take a different approach to describing why data is still very important. It's kind of evergreen, but it doesn't have to be daunting or something that you would actually not want to do.

Cynthia: Well, the whole concept of analytics is intimidating to some people. Just to hear the word and so I loved your book and I thought it made the idea of data and how we use it just a lot more approachable and understandable. And so one of the things I was thinking about is most people are familiar with using data for business operations. We know that, we've done that for forever. And in the book how we can also use it to improve the teaching and learning experiences. And so I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about some situations where faculty might think about delving a little bit deeper into the data to improve learning.

Amelia Parnell: I think I want to take maybe three part approach to the answer and maybe call out the first thing that I hear. A lot of faculty mention that could give some pause and maybe even give some concern, which usually gets into things where you might have multiple professors teaching the same course, but in different sections. And it's very tempting to look at different course sections and say, well, which professor has different outcomes? I realize some of that happens, but that's not the example I want to give. I actually think of it more of a relational experience between the actual professor and the students. And I love examples where the professor might say, let's do a real time poll. How have you all been experiencing the last few assignments or today's lecture? Did it touch on the things that were really top of mind for you?So those are not anything different from the large scale. Looking at metrics for whole semester is still the use of real time information to improve practice. And so I like the idea that faculty would be using data for that example to actually transform shape, redesign, remix the experience that students are having. And it doesn't have to be at the end of the semester in this very backwards looking type fashion. So the second is that I think there's an opportunity here for faculty to look at current trends.There are things in the book that talk about industry context and campus context. I like the idea that a biology professor might sit down with an architecture professor and say, Hey, what are some of the strategies that you've been reading about in your field and how those things been helping you in your delivery of the material. And so I think that it doesn't really limit faculty in any way, but instead opens up a lot more conversation. I think the discussion of data is not exclusively related to just the outcomes of students' grades, but instead the transforming of the experience and I like that a lot.

Jack: So one of the predictions in your book is that data will continue to illuminate the inequalities in all the sectors of higher education. And one of the things that I've been thinking about is that we are all somehow impacted by the pandemic and these impacts are going to stay with us. They'll have a period where even five years from now, we'll be dealing with students that were impacted some way in their progression through K through 12 with this. And so can you give us some examples of how this might manifest itself, but also how we might be thinking about why it's so important to be using data. Right now, I'm thinking about building this sort of skill set.

Amelia Parnell: Absolutely. And I think the pandemic is a great starting point for it. Because I think it's one of those cases where we've always had, I think, situations where there were the haves and have nots that the campuses that were well resourced and then those are trying to get to a place of stability. And it was very easy to say, well, we just know that exists and we'll work on that. But I think the pandemic illuminated that whether be an elite institution or one that is just forming. Whether it be with a large endowment or one with a small one, it impacted everybody. And I think at that point we got to see not just disparities for the things that were there before the pandemic, but new types of disparities.And so I think even thinking about technology, access to Wi-Fi was the first thing people talked about. How to create a space, even if it's a parking lot for students to come and actually have that. So I think that going forward, we'll start to use data even more for operational purposes like you described. But I think we'll also start to see at the unit level, my unit, I mean, individual student level. Like I could be at this campus that has a lot of resources, but if I individually, I'm not able to connect with those things and how do we make that better? And so I hope that it doesn't lead us to a place where we burden students more. Because I know one thing that was really popular is that campuses wanted to call every student on the phone and ask them how things are going.So on the one hand, that's great, you do need realtime data, but if every department and every division is calling students, that could be pretty burdened. And so I think we still have to work through how we might approach that in the years ahead. But I do think it kind of leveled things out in a place where talking about any qualities and inequities is not something new. And so I think it's not exclusive just to technology access and how students might be engaging with the campus, it could be a lot of things. I think college is still expensive. We could have a whole other conversation about student loans and things like that. So there's a lot in there. And I guess what I would say is that it's a prompting now because we're still in the pandemic to not forget, to look at real time data, but also be cautious about how much of that we do all at once. And I think there's a lot more I could say about that, but I feel like we have more to talk about still.

Cynthia: Definitely. And one of the things that I think about a lot is privacy and security and I think in this world where our data exists in many places and is used very widely for many purposes. I think that's something that we need to be paying attention to. And in the research you were doing, what were some of the concerns or did people bring up a lot of concerns about data privacy and security?

Amelia Parnell: I think that the concerns around data privacy and security that I hear most are the ones that are pretty consistent, which is that we don't want to mishandle a student's information or give access to someone who might not necessarily safeguard the way that we would hope. And so I think we have many new opportunities to look at how students' data can be used in a way that, of course does not violate HIPAA or FERPA or anything like that. But I think the underlying concerns are still there, which are that if every professional on a campus has access to every part of a student's record, is that necessary? Is that fair? Is that required? I find that there are conversations on both sides of it, which is that if you want to have the student at the center of the experience. It doesn't matter that an academic advisor is not the person who's managing the student's financial record, but they might need to know that in case they're providing some contextual information about a career they're pursuing.Others on the other side would say, no, that's not appropriate. We don't want everybody to see the student's record. What if they share too much or don't share enough, that type of thing. So I think the concerns are still pretty consistent. The idea that we don't want to mishandle a student's information, I think they'll continue to evolve. I think some of it will determine the safeguarding of it with policies and procedures that are very unique to the campus. So if you have a campus of a 1,000 students, pretty likely that a lot of professionals will have a lot of information. This campus of 30,000, I could make the assertion, that it might be a little bit more siloed in terms of access. So I think we're still approaching this from a perspective of wanting to, I don't want to say, I guess, do right by the student and not create any harm. I think we still have some room to make some decisions though, in terms of how that actually plays out in terms of access.

Cynthia: I think also helping students to understand how data about them is being used and how it can help them is important too.

Jack: No, that's a really great point, Cynthia. I think all too often, we sort of know information, but we don't necessarily use it. And you know, one of the examples where we recently started using data and was, we have a requirement that a student can only take a class twice. And we know that students who are taking math, if they use the tutoring center have a much higher rate of passing. And so we just started alerting students who are taking a class for a second time, the same class for a second time. Oh, by the way, at the beginning of the semester, by the way, did you know that students who use the tutoring center pass at a 20% higher rate than students who don't? Here's the virtual address that you can do to connect with the tutoring center.You might want to try that, little things like that in the past we might have been well that the students shouldn't know that we know they're taking it at certain time. Well, maybe we can help them get to the resources that they need. I think that's an important element. One of the things I was hoping to sort of have you sort of espouse on is that this podcast is called, The Integrative CIO. And I'm sort of wondering how CIOs can use your book to build collaborations, to strengthen their institution's data literacy. And how might they think about doing that?

Amelia Parnell: Well, I think there are a lot of ways they could do it, but at the core, the book is very relational. It's a book that really heavily emphasizes the need for professionals, regardless of their role to be communicating frequently with each other and be open and transparent about what they're trying to do with data. And I think that creates a great lane for those in the technology space. Whether it be a CIO or a data security officer, or IT manager anybody, basically who's using technology. I think because even now given the response to the pandemic, we're all using technology so frequently. So in terms of a data identity for, I guess, a transformative CIO, I see it being really heavy on the things that are the six pillars of the book. Like I could see them being highly communicative, I could see them being very strategic.I could see them offering a lot of campus context and shepherding discussions about how technology's been used in the past, but also maybe some things that need to be sunset and some new investments. I think specifically, if I look at the role of what a lot of CIOs do, I think even in the space where they're trying to advise on technology. So for example, in the area of student services, we're always talking about the types of ways that we can actually facilitate students experiences that might regard involve the procurement of a lot of different systems. I could see the CIO having those conversations, but also have you been thinking about the types of data that these systems would produce, where that data might be stored, who should have access to it. So I could see it being a little bit of a consultant, a little bit of a part coach, a little bit of collaborator.Not that I'm trying to find words that start with C, but it just kind of flows that way. But at the core, I think it just will help bring together more collaboration and more strategic thinking about the student experience. And so while it could also include the specific things that are offered during the job description of a CIO, I think it's going to be highly relational and the data will just be the product of that. So as those relationships start to flourish, then we'll start to see different configurations of data systems, data links, and things like that. And I think all of it is a step in the right direction.

Jack: Now, that is so true that it really does take this broad based collaboration to really make a difference with data. And so I think your book really highlights that.

Cynthia: So when I was reading the book, I was also reflecting on the academic year that just ended and at the university of Pittsburgh, for us, it was the year of data and society. And for the past, I don't know, five or six years every year has had a theme. And this year's was data in society. there were talks, there were panel discussions, the university provided some funding to faculty and staff and students to foster projects that supported socially responsible data practices and understanding the impact of data on our communities. And in fact, I think in June, it might have been that you gave a talk, Amelia, at the data at Pitt Session. And so I think that this year has been a really great opportunity for us to think as a community about the data we collect and use and how we use it in our scholarly work and in our business work and in our education. I was wondering what you thought Amelia, about what other kind of efforts might be needed across higher ed to help us all start thinking of ourselves as data people.

Amelia Parnell: Well, I think there are a couple different angles that I could take for this one. And then a lot of them relate to, again, back to the relational aspect. So one though that probably doesn't get as much sunshine, but I think is going to undergird a lot of what you just described is still the conversation about governance. And I think a lot of data conversations either get propelled or they break down. At some point, when someone discusses this idea of who should have access to what degree, where should it be stored. And I'm not suggesting that we need one finite set of rules, but instead some early conversations about just how much sharing can we do. And if there is more to be shared, how do we do that in a way that, of course addresses privacy, but opens the door for more communication, which leads to my second point.So the governance thing, we can't really get around it. The book doesn't talk as much about governance. Those are things that I think really going to play out at a campus level, but we can't ignore that. I think that the future, the ongoing years of data in society will require us to be thinking about governance. I think that leads to the open door for communication. And I think you probably could ask me any question, I'm going to tie it back to strategic communication. I think what's going to help us start to see ourselves as data people going forward is our ability to actually interpret or translate what the data mean for various audiences, because a static spreadsheet we're always going to have those. We're always going to have a system for which we can extract data, but at some point there's a story connected to it.Not necessarily looking for the positive spin or the reshaping of narratives, but literally what do these data in this spreadsheet mean for us and how should we make decisions? I think there's a skillset there to know exactly how much to share, at what point and what capacity to not overwhelm somebody, but also not to leave them with more questions than they had in the beginning. So I feel like the governance piece is going to be important and we all are connected to that. I think the strategic communications piece is connected to all of us, and we're going to have to do that. And the third is honestly staying back connected to the mission. I think you probably would've expected this to come, it's eventually going to be for the purpose of making sure that students have a great experience and we can't leave them out of the conversation.So if I were to do a part two of the book, I probably would do some student interviews and ask them about all the things Jack just described, like how they actually see themselves as consumers of data. So when you say, how do we start thinking of ourselves? I would encourage us to say, it's not the ourselves. That's just professionals and staff and administrators, but also students as well. So bringing them into the conversation.

Cynthia: Great point.

Jack: So I'm going to shift topics just a little bit, and I got to know you through some work that you were doing at NASPA with AACRAO, and it was on the Comprehensive Learner Record project. And this project is one that UNBC has started on about a year and a half ago. And we're looking at it as a multiyear effort that I think is going to be transformative if we can really make it happen. But I'm curious, could you talk a little bit about it and are you still excited about what the Comprehensive Learner Record can mean for higher education and for students?

Amelia Parnell: Oh, yes. And so, yes and yes, I can talk about it because I am still very much excited about it. So Comprehensive Learner Records and theory and concept are not really new. I think for decades, campuses have been looking for some method to collect and gather experiences that students have been doing wherever learning happens. So the academic transcript of course, has been around for many decades as a collection of grades and credit hours earned and things like that. But I think over the last couple decades, many campuses have said, we know that learning happens in other spaces too. How might we collect that and put that in something that's official that the registrar would actually sign off on that others would look at as a document and reflection of learning. And so the Comprehensive Learner Record started off as the Comprehensive Student Record, but really as a way to create something that would be digital, that would be able to the student could transfer information from a variety of sources.And it would be a reflection of the learning outcomes that happened. So that, could take many different shapes. It could be a co-curricular transcript. It could be a digital badge. It could be an e-portfolio, it could be homegrown, or it could be something that a vendor supports. But the idea is that it should be a more robust collection that showcases what students knowing what they can do. And so many schools have developed these and they don't all look the same, which is a great thing, because no campus looks the same as another. But the opportunity here is that it gives a great opportunity for the student to say, here's what I have been doing. Here's what I've been learning. So it's a tool of course, a digital record, but it should be used, I think in a lot of different ways. One of the most important of which is for the student to narrate what's going on.So I think that I've now seen several dozens of examples and I think that in the future we are going to see more campuses adopt them because at this point it's really important for students to see the return on their investment of a college experience. And because they may be in a club or activity, they may be a part of the debate team, but they also may be in a really great sociology class. And in all those spaces, they learn a lot of things. And so I think the future of it is that we will see more campuses try to make those very unique and very student centered. I think we'll see technology leverage some very unique ways. I think the idea that a static record like that used to be paper. I don't think we're going to have any of that anymore.I think we're going to be talking a lot about how to connect students experiences, especially if they transfer. So if I'm looking on the horizon five years ahead and I'm at NASPA university, but I want to transfer to UNBC and both NASPA university and UNBC have their own version of a Comprehensive Learning Record. How do we merge those two and connect with not quite there yet, but I think the momentum is that campuses want to create it. And I think students are eventually going to get to the place where they want to have one and want to populate it with a lot of things. So I think it's great, I'm completely biased. I've met too many campuses, including yours that have done really cool things. And I hope it continues to thrive and pick up momentum in the years ahead.

Jack: Yeah. One of the projects that we're just getting started this fall is we're going to be working with one of the public school districts, the community college in that county, and then UNBC because we have a satellite campus in that county as well. And so we have these programs that students start in community, in high school. They're attending community college while they're in high school, they then finish in community college. They then go to another... And we're trying to be thinking about how you can be moving a record across these multiple institutions. It's really exciting, and I hope more campuses start to take a look at just the potential that's out there for this.

Cynthia: Well, and I think that the associations, like NASPA and EDUCAUSE play an important role in making these kinds of things happen. So it's exciting that you're involved with it. Speaking of NASPA, one of the things that I saw on the website was the association's work that showcases campuses that provided hybrid or virtual support services during the pandemic. I think they were the Virtual Innovation Awards.

Amelia Parnell: Yeah.

Cynthia: Yeah. Could you talk about those a little bit?

Amelia Parnell: Absolutely. So if you rewind back to a period in 2020, we were all experiencing something we just never imagined. Of course higher education was going through this just really difficult time of trying to navigate how they would continue to deliver all types of things, but especially support services like advising orientation. at the time we had some conversations with the Gates Foundation where we were saying there are a lot of vice presidents of student affairs, a lot of directors of different programs of initiatives that are writing and calling and saying, do you have any examples of how we could do this particular service or program in a virtual space? You know, we had the technology, but we just need to know how to facilitate this and not lose momentum for the students who are really excited about coming and have to be virtual, what can we do?And so we had a quick set of conversations, which then turned into a proposal, which then turned into an investment, where we said that rather than try to create a blueprint set of training materials that would probably take months to develop. And by the time they're developed campus, they need something now. We would instead try to do something that would actually showcase and highlight what's already going on. And so we created the virtual innovation awards where we asked campuses, how are you actually delivering the virtual support services right now, and what's working well? And so we asked campuses to spend some time when they were already busy, completing an application and telling us the answers to some critical questions. And we got over a 100 campuses that answered multiple pages of detailed questions for us, from which we then chose 10 schools that we wanted to highlight for doing some really cool things.And so what I can say is that it was really hard to pick 10 from the 100 plus for a couple different reasons. One of which was that every application has something really cool in it. And I really wanted to be able to choose every campus. But I think what we learned, probably the number one takeaway, and we hear this a lot. Technology was actually not the leading factor in how they would deliver these resources. A lot of them used what they already had because they didn't have time to go out and source and procure something new. And the other was that there was tremendous amounts of collaboration and almost every single campus said that they would not have been able to do it so quickly. So thoroughly, if there had not been such high levels of interaction across silos and functions. And so, it was cool.

Cynthia: I think that collaboration came out loud and clear to me when I was reading them and the collaboration between student support and IT, was really visible too.

Jack: Yeah, when I looked at the final report for that project, I really saw just a number of projects that are great examples of what the EDUCAUSE community likes to call digital transformation. I think it's a great spot to sort of look at opportunities, if you're thinking about this. One of the things you didn't quite explicitly mention, but it is sort of called out in the report is the importance of sort of thinking about some of these projects around equity and inclusion and the fact that all of our students are coming from different places. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Amelia Parnell: I can, and I think I'd like to take a maybe twofold approach. The first is that in that period, which we're kind of still in, you're trying to navigate a pandemic, but also knowing that many campuses that figured out they could use virtual options don't necessarily want to go back to completely on-campus, in-person only. So they're looking at hybrid things, but when the conversations first started, I think from an equity and inclusion and social justice standpoint, it was very laid in from a deficit standpoint. The idea that students might not experience virtual orientation the same if they don't have this, or if they don't know this, or they don't have the time for that. And those are all valid pieces, we certainly have to approach it. But then, understanding of there's not going to be equal distribution in some cases. And when we find that we have to make it equal.But I think what we found on the flip side is that students have a lot of assets that they bring to the college experience. So I think seeing this virtual experience and virtual delivery of support services helps campuses see a different side of students and the things that they're navigating and being able to do that and still learn on the fly was a great thing. So some campuses would describe a student who has a family and people they're taken care of and they're at home and they're not in a secluded space, actually be able to learn. You could also look at that and say, if a student can manage all of that and still show up for virtual orientation or class, they have tremendous ability to multitask and strategically plan a lot of things like that. So I think the larger headline for me is that we of course have to address the disparities that are there.We have to of course, try to figure out ways to make our systems equally distributed in a way that no student is going to be saying, I can no longer attend because I don't have the resources. But at the same time, we have to find ways to show them that the things and the skill sets they bring actually are ways to make their experiences positive and actually show them that they are building the skill sets and that they are college ready and going to end up thriving in a different capacity. So I like the project. What I can say is it's a shameless plug. So in about maybe a month, if not sooner, we're going to release another free resource, which is a bit of a guide. So remember in the beginning, I said, "we didn't have time to create the guide to start, but we're now creating the guide at the end".So if you read the report and you like the examples of the 10 schools, and you're like, we should consider how we might want to do a hybrid type of virtual support services. In the guide, we have critical questions to ask. We have metrics in there that we would suggest that you keep track of. And so it's really designed to be the, okay, you've got us, how do we go from where we are now to in the future? So some of that touches on a lot of the questions you just asked me, and I think it'll be a nice supplement to what you've already seen. Totally free, it'll be available on the website for download.

Cynthia: Amelia, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much. Is there anything we didn't talk about or anything you want to add before we wrap up today?

Amelia Parnell: No, I think we've covered a lot of ground. I just want to say thank you for having me and Jack, you asked me a great question about the reception for the book. And I quickly said it's been positive. I just want to say thank you to anybody who picked up the book, read some of the book, talked about the book. I really did not expect that there would be so many different reactions. Some people excited about it. Some saying, I didn't know that I was a data person or you made it seem so easy. Many people have asked me, what is the next book coming out type of thing. So it's just been fun. I appreciate any opportunity to talk about the work and I thank you very much for this opportunity.

Jack: Well, it's been a fabulous conversation and thank you for the book.

Amelia Parnell: You're welcome.

This episode features:

Amelia Parnell
Vice President for Research and Policy
NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education

Cynthia Golden
Associate Provost
Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Pittsburgh

Jack Suess
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County