Pat George was a recipient of a PACADA Professional Development Grant for the 2017 year. He used his funds to attend the NACADA Annual Conference in St. Louis, MO. See below for more information about his experience!
Article By: Pat George
There are many familiar words associated with St. Louis. Three that come to mind are gateway, arch, and Cardinals (sorry Cubs fans). However, during October 11-14, 2017, NACADA was all the buzz at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis.
I was fortunate to receive a PACADA professional development grant to attend this conference, and I was equally privileged to attend with some of my office colleagues who I believe are some of the most dedicated and caring advisors on this campus. Our Senior Associate Dean, Dr. Holly Mason, supports our Office of Student Services in the College of Pharmacy in numerous ways, and my colleagues and I benefit tremendously from his confidence and conviction.
Speaking of conviction, I am reporting on what I thought was one of the most intriguing and bold sessions at this conference, “The Problems and Promise of Big Data in Advising.” Kudos to NACADA and the selection committee for allowing this proposal to become a reality. It could have easily been passed over due to its subject matter and outcomes that challenge a service retailed by one of the main sponsors of the conference.
Adrienne Sewell, Director of Advising for Retention and Sophomore Initiatives at Indiana University Bloomington provoked thought and insight regarding the academe’s infatuation with big data. “When it comes to data, we aren’t always sure what we are looking at,” stated Sewell. She continued, “Expectations are that we will be able to search like Google® and make recommendations like Netflix®. Big Data can solve anything!”
Sewell stated, “Predictive analytics, data mining, and pattern recognition are now common terms in our digital world, and they promise to practically solve any problem. Looking back at our past Presidential election, it appears Big Data missed the mark as some of the most sophisticated predictive analytics tools in the world were all but certain of the outcome of the election.”
I was fascinated by her explanation of the evolution of computer programming. She explained that initially, computers were programmed by people. Programmers looked at data and made a hypothesis. Today, we are teaching computers the ability to learn without being programmed – to not only have the logic to answer questions, but to create the questions. A couple of examples are Netflix® which predicts what you would like to watch and our smart phones learning about us through typos, voice recognition, routes on GPS, etc.
How does this impact advising? Sewell referenced an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying old- school advising is about who appears in front of you – it’s very limited. New-school advising is using predictive analytics to target a specific group. But is this true?
Sewell argued, “Our responsibility as advisors is to make sure we monitor how well the system is working. Keep good records of any errors (screen shots are ideal) and when systems are developed or enhanced, make sure we are advocates for advisor input/testing. Recognize that not all predictions have equal accuracy. Big data makes predictions for all students which leads to false-positives because it must select an answer.” She quoted Baer and Norris (2013) asserting analytics is only one piece in a student success system. It requires commitment to persistent, personalized actions, and interventions to improve student success guided by analytics-based insights.
Sewell concluded by asking us to ponder these questions: When do our data points become ethical issues? What about economic background, financial need, race, etc.? Can assessing risk become a self-fulfilling prophecy? She followed with acknowledging that data can help answer questions, describe/discover a pattern, figure out students to reach out to, but we must continually adjust and use data wisely because approaches matter and data alone won’t save us.