Continued Conversations…Data is a Tool, Action is the Key

By Tracy Sleep, Iowa Community Colleges Online Consortium

As a person interested or involved with NGLC activities, you are already aware of the virtues of data-driven decision-making, in using data to develop strategies or create a better understanding of what you do, how you do it, and the outcomes of your stakeholders.  You have, most likely, already heard the terms big data, learner analytics, educational data mining, predictive modeling and more; but, do you think about the timeliness of your data, the resources in place to act upon your data or the collaboration needed to take action based on your data?

The Iowa Community College Online Consortium (ICCOC) is a partnership of seven Iowa community colleges that offers more than 1,000 online course sections to around 20,000 fully-online enrollments each semester.  The ICCOC has continually used commonly available learner analytics to improve instruction and student outcomes.  From fall 2005 to fall 2010, completion rates for at-risk students improved 8 percentage points, and success rates for at-risk students increased 11 percentage points.  The ICCOC used the opportunity as a Wave I grantee to share with others what we do and how we do it.

Our NGLC team members attended numerous conferences together and individually to share our processes, thoughts and philosophy of using data to improve student success and completion.  We have had discussions with individuals from big and small institutions and encountered those who do not use data at all to those who rely heavily on data and have very sophisticated systems in place.  What has remained consistent is the need for continued conversations internally and externally about the types of data available, location of data, the meaning of data to different stakeholders, and the technologies available or being developed that can aggregate data, analyze data or predict outcomes.  More importantly, discussions also need to occur around what actions, if any, that we take based on data and by whom, and when and how data are presented to various stakeholders.

For the ICCOC, we have consistently asked these questions of ourselves and have gradually moved from a very simple use of data to a progressively more sophisticated use of our data as new technology became available.  But, the key word has always been “action.”  The philosophy of all the partners of our Consortium is to take what information we have at hand and proactively act upon it in a timely manner to improve student outcomes.  This is illustrated with our NGLC project to build a dashboard that would provide instructors with simple and easy access to a list of potential at-risk students each day and allow them to reach out to these students via email immediately. 

Since we have just pushed out the dashboard to all our online courses, we do not yet know the full impact it will have for at-risk students.  We will continue to monitor the data and statistics; however, we are already moving forward to the next level of using our data by working with Pearson eCollege to pilot a predictive risk dashboard for a select group of courses during the spring 2013 term.  With more data and the use of algorithms, we are encouraging instructors to take action and reach out to students before they become truly “at-risk” of failing or dropping.

As we have spoken with groups looking to put their data to use, we have discussed our processes and our initial use of a Student Services Concierge at the Consortium level to pull data, intervene with at-risk students and direct students to resources/services.  Over time, due to increased enrollments, the concierge role and processes have shifted from the Consortium to our partner colleges and metamorphosed into roles and processes that make sense with each college’s own structure and culture.  This has been true as we have had conversations with institutions outside of our Consortium.  The ICCOC model of using data does not fit perfectly or make sense to other institutions due to structure, philosophy, resources and data systems; however, the belief that collaborative action based on the data available is vital to student success seems to be shared, at some level, by all.

Data is a tool.  It can be simple or sophisticated and, yes, very powerful.  This tool in whatever form it is presented allows anyone to assess which students need help; however, it is the collaborative actions and resources provided by the institution and its members that make the difference in student success and completion.

About the Author

Tracy Sleep works with the partner colleges of the Iowa Community College Online Consortium as the Student Services & Institutional Research Manager.  With an extensive background in Student Services, she coordinates common resources and processes for student services and uses data to create reports that assist each college with ensuring student success and retention.  Tracy shares best practices concerning online student services and the use of data with colleagues as a presenter, consultant and through individual conversations.  For more information about the ICCOC’s Wave I project, visit their website at  For continued conversations, Tracy may be reached at

Special acknowledgements go to the ICCOC NGLC team members and partners.

Add new comment