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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

FABulous Opportunity for Innovation

MVCC’s new FABlab is the latest addition in a long history of staying on the leading edge of technology. Founded as a technical institute in 1946, MVCC has deep roots in technical education, and our FABlab builds on that tradition to provide an incredible resource for our faculty, students, and community as the emerging high-tech economy takes hold here in the Mohawk Valley.

As part of a $15 million SUNY 2020 grant that created the Center for Global Advanced Manufacturing (CGAM) – a network of nine community colleges working with SUNY Poly – the MVCC FABlab was developed on the Utica Campus. It’s all part of providing resources for students to build skills and think of the possibilities to design, manufacture and produce products that add value to the local economy.

The MVCC FABLab is a member of the MIT International FABlab Network, which requires certain standards of equipment be maintained; participation and contribution to the Network; and availability of the lab resources opened to community members. This means that designs from all over the world can be accessed through the Network and printed and produced right here in Utica. In addition, community access means that local entrepreneurs can produce prototypes, and existing businesses can produce one-off parts to efficiently find solutions for their existing lines of operation.

With multiple 3D printers and various milling machines to complement our CNC lab and welding lab that are co-located across the hall in the Science and Technology Building, the possibilities are only limited by imagination. To check out more on the MVCC FABlab, click this link – FABlab



If you have any comments or questions, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Psychology of College Choice


As the school year winds down, high school seniors are going through an important rite of passage – what to do after high school? May 1st is the typical deadline for high school seniors to make their college decision, which makes the month of April a 30-day stretch of stress and anxiety in many households across the country. The high school graduation parties and summer family reunions will soon be here, and students need a story to tell when relatives ask, “so what are you going to do in the fall?” Sorting through the various aspects of a decision that has a significant effect on the trajectory of one's life can be overwhelming. Fully understanding the variables and the choices in play is a critical component to making the right decision that can help ease that natural anxiety.

Twenty years ago, I took a class called the Psychology of Student Success as part of my doctoral program. One of the topics covered was the psychology of college choice – why do students choose the colleges they do? The research was one of the most scattered, inconclusive bodies of knowledge I ever encountered in my studies. It uncovered variables such as familiarity (parents or sibling attended); academic program (when most students change their major multiple times); social reasons (high school friends are attending); and several other factors that held great influence over choosing a college but have little to do with the eventual satisfaction with the overall college experience.

At 18 years old, it seems unrealistic to think that we know exactly what we want in a college when the college experience is typically an unknown frontier in great contrast to high school. Sorting through the information is particularly hard when colleges seem to blend all too easily into an indistinguishable array of pretty buildings, smiling tour guides, and piles of information that can easily morph into a hodgepodge of ambiguity – leaving a prospective student to sort through marginal differences when trying to decide between colleges.

Our Vice President for Learning & Academic Affairs, Dr. Maryrose Eannace, always speaks about how a successful college decision is comprised of a triangle of choice in which all three points need to be satisfied – the head, the heart, and the wallet. If all three aren't accounted for, students run the risk of making a choice that may limit their immediate and long-term success. The head component is comprised of all the quantitative factors – location, enrollment size, academic program choices, campus life, housing options, and other specific things students might be looking for in a college. The heart component is comprised of the qualitative factors – emotional reaction to the idea of the college, the feeling when you walk around campus, first impressions when meeting faculty, staff, and students, walking through the buildings and visualizing spending the next few years there. And finally, the wallet component is as straight forward as can be – is the college affordable and how much debt may be a part of the future after graduation? Satisfying any two and not the third will create risk for success. If the wallet is satisfied (graduate with no debt) and the head is satisfied (all logical criteria are satisfied), but the heart isn't there (it just doesn't feel right and there isn't a connection), the likelihood of the student being engaged and committed is not good. Likewise, if the head and heart are satisfied but a student graduates with a mountain of crushing debt, it's not likely to have been worth it in the long run.

It's very difficult to tell an 18-year-old facing one of the most significant decisions in their life to this point that it will all work out eventually. Phrases like, “It's not so much where you start as it is where you finish” hold little weight when all that seems to matter at 18 is where you start. It might be difficult for 18-year-olds to tune out peer pressure, but in reality, the opinions of their high school friends probably won't matter as much a year from now. The important part is that they make that college choice and get themselves excited about wherever they go, because it's not so much the college that will make them successful as much as their own personal attitude and motivation to engage, connect, and finish that will.  

I haven't seen the most recent research, but I have my own theory about the psychology of student success – we all have the choice to make the best decision we can with the information we have and make the most of whatever experience those decisions provide us.  

If you have any comments or questions, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Silver Linings

I had the great pleasure of joining my family and some friends at the Kacey Musgraves concert at MVCC this past weekend at our own Robert R. Jorgensen Center. Our amazing Events Office partnered with Big Frog FM Country to bring Kacey to town. She’s a two-time Grammy Award winner and two-time Country Music Award winner who writes playfully vivid lyrics.  Kacey and her band gave a great performance and I emerged a new fan as her music provided me with a new lens on our world.

My academic training in organizational development often orients my mind to applying concepts and experiences – however disparate – to our College as a way to continually analyze and understand where we are.  One of Kacey’s hit songs is called “Silver Lining,” and I bought it the day after the concert. Some of the lyrics quickly brought to mind our current enrollment and budget situation. As she sings, “If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining, it’s gotta be a cloudy day. If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightening, you’re gonna have to stand in the rain.” Kacey captures the two sides of every coin paradox that certainly applies to where we are with our enrollment – as we now return to “pre-recession enrollment levels.”

We’re emerging from the Great Recession where the counter-cyclical nature of community enrollment was magnified in an unprecedented manner. From 2007-2014, MVCC had the 3rd largest percentage enrollment increase within the SUNY system (28%) and assumed the highest percentage of Pell-eligible and career-oriented students while maintaining the 5th lowest tuition and the 2nd lowest cost per student in the system. This was due in large part to the regional economic toll of the recession combined with our creative and aggressive outreach efforts – when people can't find work, they go back to college to upgrade their skills, and we were there for them. 

As the economy got a stronger footing in 2013 and people went back to work (the unemployment rate dropped from 9.7% to 5.5%), the declining enrollment impact was amplified by the fact that the high school graduating class was the first one born after Griffiss Air Force Base closed 18 years earlier in 1995. The subsequent overall drop in high school graduates certainly has had a negative impact on our enrollment, but ironically, the percentage of high school graduates in Oneida County attending MVCC has increased in the past few years, surpassing 30% this past fall.

While we were expanding enrollment 5% to 10% a year from 2009-2012, some wondered why we would pursue such growth knowing it could not be maintained in the long term. The short answer is that MVCC needed to be there for this community when it needed us most – during a once-in-a-century recession. The positive relationships and the community trust that was nurtured as the result of our response has been confirmed in a recent community assessment that involved nearly 900 individuals participating in interviews and focus groups.

From that assessment, it seems clear that we do have lightning in a bottle, but now we just need to stand in the rain for a little bit. And while the current budget makes for some cloudy days, the silver lining is that we have an abundance of partnerships, as well as a deeper sense of our core mission, to provide a trained workforce and educated citizenry through a robust array of workforce development programs and a heightened commitment to the liberal arts and sciences.

The future economic outlook for our community has never been brighter.  MVCC is now seen as a central catalyst to helping reverse four decades of economic decline in the next 5-10 years, as we collectively pursue a diverse high-tech economy that will be oh so sweet.  We have some challenging decisions to be made in the next few months to balance the 2015-16 budget, but as Kacey Musgraves sings, “If you wanna find the honey, you can’t be scared of the bees. And if you wanna see the forest, you’re gonna have to look past the trees.”

Those lyrics are on point as I think about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re headed. Cloudy days are all too easy to find here in the Mohawk Valley, but fortunately, the silver linings are getting easier to spot as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Free Vs. Focused? The Conversation Continues


President Obama’s proposal to provide up to $3,800 of free tuition at community colleges has received wide-ranging consideration. From editorials in publications like our own Rome Sentinel, to Op-Eds by Tom Hanks and others in the New York Times, the proposal has grabbed a fair amount of attention in the past two weeks.

Hanks wrote a wonderful piece about his community college days at Chabot College.  The thousands of responses from community college alumni have been inspiring to read for all of us who work in community colleges throughout the country. We see the financial challenges of our students every day, as they try to overcome financial hurdles and secure a college credential in pursuit of a better life.

From the student loan debt figures to the individual stories of college students today, the need for bold proposals and new thinking is easily justified. Consideration should be given to the reality that free public education through high school served as a catalyst to transform this nation from an agricultural society to a modern industrial one and likewise, the bar must be raised through an additional two years of public education to fully move us into the information age that continues to rapidly transform our society.

However, the recent editorials, media coverage, and responses are informing an increasingly nuanced view of the President’s proposal. Countless research studies show that human beings try harder and perform better when we have some skin in the game compared to the potential complacency that comes when something is free. With 80% of community college students nationwide working full or part time while enrolled, many would argue just managing their busy lives is “skin in the game” enough to warrant this expansion of public education.

The dialogue on this proposal should not focus solely on tuition, given that it’s covered for the neediest students through current federal and state financial aid programs.  Conversation is needed to go beyond student access to include attention to student completion. More direct research on student completion demonstrates the importance of grit and motivation (Tough, 2012) as well as attachment and involvement (Astin, 1999) for students to actually graduate. The President’s proposal is a big idea that has many sides to it – it should be just the beginning. What should the parameters really be? What should we mean by “responsible students” who would be eligible? All of this should be discussed, debated, and decided.

Unfortunately, the largest issue of all is the lack of productive dialogue in Washington. The proposal was rolled out with all the trappings of a “too good to be true” late night television commercial that prompted criticisms of this administration, calling this extension of public education a free entitlement. Rather than all parties recognizing the need, affirming the realities, and refining the idea together in order to help our society move forward, political gridlock rules the day!

It’s a shame that the needs of students and employers alike are trampled under the dysfunction of this country’s modern-day politics. For our part, community colleges will continue to do what we’ve always done—navigate the winds of change to produce the best possible outcomes for our students and local economies.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Big Idea for a Big Problem

President Obama’s recent proposal to provide a free community college education to responsible students is a big idea. Like most transformative notions, time is needed to consider all the implications, but at a conceptual level the proposal is brilliant.

The notion of a free education through the first two years of community college holds the possibility of greatly accelerating the capacity of a trained workforce in this country. With better trained employees and better educated citizens, our employers and our society would greatly benefit – the economy would expand and perhaps the ever-expanding wealth gap might even begin to diminish. Because the concept is bold, it will most certainly prompt an important and necessary discussion on national priorities and values. We can have the highest skilled workforce in the world, but if our infrastructure is so poor that goods can’t be transported across modern transportation systems, those skilled employees are working in vain. We can be the most educated nation in the world, but if we have a national debt that cripples the economy, it won’t matter as much as it would otherwise. Yet President Obama’s proposal warrants great consideration and continued conversation.

Our country is founded on the rights of the individual and requires an educated citizenry to continue advancing the democratic principles of our republic and maintaining our economic vitality. President Obama provides a very relevant reference to the catalytic role that free public high school education played in the early 20th century toward powering tremendous growth and prosperity in America. It follows then that as society and the modern workplace become more complex and advanced, the public support for postsecondary education should increase accordingly for the 21st century.

It’s ironic that despite our country’s faith in the individual, our society too often adopts a “one size fits all” mentality. Despite nearly half of all college undergraduate students in America attending community colleges, the general expectation is that high school graduates should ideally go to four-year colleges or universities regardless of their interests or level of preparedness. Anything otherwise is considered an unfortunate deviation from societal expectations. This is a narrow understanding of success that has significant negative consequences. This proposal recognizes that we are all different and that we need options when it comes to education.

Community college admissions offices are the frontline of this societal disconnect where students of all ages try to plan a path to a better life. Too many 20-year-olds who were good students in high school but weren’t ready to leave home arrive at the door with $60,000 in debt, looking to put their lives back together after flunking out of a private college with astronomical tuition. Too many returning adults over 25 who couldn’t afford college arrive looking for a better life beyond hopping from one unskilled job to the next to support their family. The financial wreckage of our higher education system is most powerfully magnified by the fact that total student loan debt in this country (more than $1.2 trillion) now easily outpaces total credit card debt. It is seen by many to be the next economic bubble set to pop. In a country that prides itself on individual advancement, we made the critical catalyst – a college education – out of reach for far too many. Similar to our healthcare system, our higher education system is broken and needs to be fixed. Small tweaks aren’t going to cut it. Like anything that is broken, our higher education system needs to be reset.

Some may say the proposed $9 billion annual price tag is outrageous. However, we fought two wars recently in Iraq and Afghanistan with the expenditures justified as necessary to strengthen the resolve and secure the future of this country. Over the course of 11 years (roughly 4,000 days), we spent $1.497 trillion dollars ($372,851,806 daily) – about $9 billion every 24 days for 11 years. Providing a free community college education to American citizens will certainly strengthen the resolve and secure the future of our country as well, because more Americans will be armed with the knowledge and skills they need to meet the demands of our growing global economy.

The 25% financial obligation on the states requires a legislative deep breath to be sure, as few states have that kind of money visibly available in their budgets. However, just like our household budgets, with the right vision and planning, decisions can be made to support the family as needs change. It’s a matter of will and difficult choices, civil discourse, a willingness to compromise, and the establishment of shared priorities to make it happen.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Why Do White People Tan?

A simple question changed my life forever. When I was a Resident Director in Mary Markley Hall at the University of Michigan, one of my Resident Assistants – an African-American woman named Angela – and I were part of a small group of residence life staff who got together every few weeks to ask each other unfiltered questions about our differences. No two of us were alike, and we came together as a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and gender combinations.  It was the peak of the first wave of political correctness where none of us knew what to call each other in a new and emerging hyphenated social reality. 

One evening, Angela called me out to answer her question – “If white people have issues with some people because of dark skin color, then why do white people tan?” Wow – her question shocked me. It took me a long moment to respond, “I don’t know Angela, I really don’t tan because I just burn. Besides, how can you expect me to answer a question for all white people?” She quickly cut back – “Randy, do you know how many times EVERY DAY I’m asked to speak on behalf of all black people?”

The depth of her simple and clear statement set me on a course for a lifelong journey to understand race, diversity, stereotypes and intercultural relations. Like our society, I still have a long way to go.

Ferguson

The death of Michael Brown is the latest amplification of the racial tensions in our country. Diversity is what makes us who we are as a nation – like no other in the world. However, what happened in Ferguson is complex, yet it would be easier with simple answers that don’t require us to think too much about it. This is one piece of a much larger and tragic pattern that is not easily understood, even though evidence of the pattern is seen all around us.

History Worth Learning

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine named Cynthia and I were talking about music. Growing up so close to Flint and Detroit, my preferences tend to be more R&B with an appreciation for Motown and good stuff from the ’70s like the GAP Band.  Cynthia asked me if I knew what GAP stood for in the band’s name – I had no idea.  She went on to tell me to look up “Greenwood Archer and Pine Tulsa” (GAP) and learn about the race riot of 1921. When I read about the success of the thriving community called “Black America’s Wall Street” and how it was burned to the ground overnight, it had a profound effect on me. How did I get through high school, college, and graduate school and never hear of such a thing? Why did I love history and learn so much about the wars and presidents of our country, yet something as significant as what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was left for me to discover on my own?

One book that has recently added tremendous perspective for me on race in this country is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. She posits that the mass incarceration of African-American and Hispanic people in this country (the numbers don’t lie) equates to a third iteration of slavery here. She backs it up with plausible evidence. Additionally, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson provides three compelling case studies interspersed with remarkable census evidence to describe the great migration of more than 6 million African-Americans out of the south between 1916 and 1970. Her fascinating narrative and data provide context for the ways in which the nuances of laws in this country couple with covert and often indirect behavior to subtly shape and splinter our society along racial lines. Learning more about our collective past, together, gives us shared context to understand patterns that are otherwise too complex, too terrifying, and too divisive for us to work on together.

Framing the Conversation

I believe familiarity is the antidote to the cancer of stereotypes.  During my time as a Resident Director in graduate school, I worked with a fellow director named Joy.  She was a strong and bright African American woman – double major MBA and MPH at the University of Michigan. I consider Joy a great influence on my understanding of race and oppression in this country.  One day when I made an ignorant, uninformed statement based on a stereotype, she asked if I’d ever considered the confluence of issues and the struggle associated with being a woman in this country AND being African American – in many ways a “double minority.”  At the time, I’d never given it much thought.  Since then, it’s often on my radar screen - like many other insights and perspectives Joy shared with me.

Working my entire professional career in community colleges has provided me with the opportunity to experience countless trainings and workshops on diversity-related topics of all kinds. Academics have a reputation for overthinking things and playing with language too much, but when it comes to conversations about race, words matter. Think about the distinctions between diversity and inclusivity; tolerance and acceptance; support and respect; racism and bias. I sometimes hear people talk about “reverse racism” and wonder how much time they’ve spent exploring definitions of racism and the role of power. Can one be a racist from a powerless position or are such attitudes simply a defensive response to a culturally engrained, legally sanctioned, historically persistent, institutionally entrenched systemic bias?  Can reverse racism exist if the power structure in America is as it always has been? I subscribe to the notion that what most people think is reverse racism is better defined as racial bias – a small but important difference that recognizes the role of power.

Conversations about race often seem too uncomfortable and contradict too many stereotypes we have in our minds to simplify the world for ourselves.  Breaking down stereotypes requires those with societally provided power to willingly let go of that in order to learn and understand the dynamics at play when it comes to race.  It requires a default belief that we are all equal – all human in every sense of the word. And it requires exploring and understanding the outcomes that different humans and groups of humans experience.  Understanding comes through inquiry and that includes challenging our thinking and asking difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable questions to which the answers may not be readily available.  To this day, I’m not sure I fully understand why white people tan – maybe someday I will.

If you have any comments on this post, you can contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Societal Implications: Getting Ahead of the Future That’s Already Here

It seems a news story appears in front of me at least once a week that gives me pause – nanotechnology, drones, 3-D printing, the Internet of everything, and countless other developments demonstrate the far and distant future is already here.  A movie that pulls much of it together for me is Transendence.  Whether or not you like Johnny Depp or the movie itself, it has a number of futuristic applications of technologies that exist today – pulled together to demonstrate a particular scenario for how all of this may someday coincide. Nanoparticles that regenerate on their own; bio-engineering that heals wounds and illness; smart machines that anticipate human actions and emotions; all notions that are currently in the research labs of today – likely to be part of our daily lives in a matter of years through an ongoing series of disruptive innovations.

The future is here.

What’s amazing to me is that two of the most disruptive and eventually ubiquitous industries of the 21st Century (and beyond!) are likely to have their core here in upstate New York and the Mohawk Valley specifically.  Nanotechnology is already changing our world through faster and more powerful computer applications and personal devices that are providing new horizons for education – just think of how many apps are already employed in the life of our students.  Additionally, drones are increasingly in the news.  Beyond the highly touted Amazon deliveries, I’ve included a brief link here for the top ten non-military uses of Drones.



While our FabLab is being constructed this fall, 3-D printing is evolving at an incredible rate.  The technology has gone from printing fun little prototypes to real-world useful products in a proverbial blink of an eye. Bio-printing creates human body parts like ears, noses, fingers, and human skin.  The idea was a TED talk two years ago and had people dreaming of the future…the first surgery using a 3-D printed body part has already been successfully completed!  Edible cookies and other food applications; countless manufacturing applications (including an entirely functional automobile!); and just about whatever anyone can construct in their mind are already being produced.

The dynamics and intersections of all these elements are hard to track in some confluence that lays out a clear path of action for us.  What we do know is that it’s all coming together in some fashion to create a very new and complex future for us and our students.  What gives me hope and confidence is the history of MVCC and this organization’s ability to evolve and meet a changing future in productive ways.  Our challenge is how to create an ongoing dialogue across the College to scan, process, and derive meaning from everything going on around us to take the innovative practices happening at the fringe of our enterprise and scale up by bringing them to the core.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Organizational Implications: Getting Ahead of the Future That’s Already Here

I have written in previous posts about the parallel between the healthcare industry and the postsecondary industry and I continue to be fascinated how trends in healthcare remain about ten years ahead of postsecondary education.  From increased accountability to big data applications, analyzing healthcare trends is like looking into a crystal ball of sorts when it comes to preparing for fundamental changes to the political and operating environment for colleges.

Consumerism is the newest trend appearing in the healthcare field.  A number of signals are demonstrating that the only way to bring the rising costs of healthcare under control is to put more responsibility on the consumer – and that is happening at an accelerating rate.  The same is likely to be true with the costs of a college education.  As federal financial policies are under greater scrutiny and states grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of outcomes (i.e., healthcare industry circa 2010), new mechanisms may appear that put the power and responsibility in the hands of the student (consumer) in even more significant ways.  For example, in Colorado, the state aid revenue doesn’t go to the community college, it goes with the student in the form of a voucher.  For now, it sounds like a lot of paperwork, but the principle is a tangible message of things to come in the future of public higher education in this country.

The changing dynamics of the external forces require us to anticipate trends before they’re even identified as such – as the famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky is quoted as saying, “I skate to where the puck will be, not where it has been.”  So too must community colleges go to where their community will be; and where the students will be; and where the funding will be; and where the accountability will be – that is where we must go.

The future is here.

As change becomes more rapid and more acute in our external environment, we must become that much better at change in our internal culture.  Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and I believe he is right.  We all must work on our culture.  The recent development of a new core values statement is very exciting.  Having a set of core values provides us a foundation to develop a common vocabulary and hold each other accountable, but it also provides a steady and stable force for our organizational culture in the midst of great changes all around us.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Teaching & Learning: Getting Ahead of the Future That’s Already Here

"The future ain’t what it used to be."  The quote attributed to Yogi Berra could not be more meaningful these days.  We can easily get caught in our own thinking ruts – using linear thinking and mental models that are increasingly, if not already, outdated by a world that is changing faster than most anyone of us can comprehend.  It is all too easy to make assumptions from our individual and collective experiences that simply extrapolate the past into the present, while thinking the future will be best met through similar approaches to those that have worked in the past. Rut thinking and stale mental models limit our thinking; inhibits a mindset of abundance; and minimizes options for problem solving.

The future is here.

No area is free from the crushing presence of the future that is already upon us.  This includes the core of our enterprise – teaching and learning.  Fortunately, MVCC has a long history of amazing faculty members who are drawn to the craft of teaching and is fortunate to have a number of faculty currently pushing the envelope by experimenting with the latest developments in the art and practice of teaching.

We have enrichment and professional development for faculty and staff through a nationally recognized program of outstanding and robust offerings. Continuous learning for ourselves is critical when we consider how quickly changes in the educational setting are accelerating. 

Research on the human brain over the past decade has demonstrated the consistent finding that learning occurs best when students experience a shift of some kind every 12 minutes – mini-lecture; video; individual reflection; small group discussion; mini-lecture; video; etc.  What does that require of classrooms, technology, furniture, faculty, students, or materials? 

Massive Open Online Courses where thousands can enroll in a single section of a free online course offered by well-known universities are a disruptive innovation.  While their immediate threat to traditional education seems to have transitioned to providing access to education in lesser developed countries, they represent a new educational delivery brought to scale. 

Open educational resources (OER) leverage the wealth of information that is available for free on the Internet.  OERs in full form take the shape of the “free textbook” – replacing the traditional textbook with guided links to all the necessary information that can be found on the web in one form or another.  Nationally, average textbook costs equal more than 70% of community college tuition making this a financial imperative toward reducing educational costs for our students. 

The “flipped classroom” combines brain research and OERs with intentional mini-lectures and facilitates students accessing the traditional information outside the classroom and doing their traditional homework inside the classroom through guided activities following an initial mini-lecture to set the stage for very active learning. 

Hybrid offerings combine the best of traditional classroom learning with the best of online learning in a convenient and intentionally designed curriculum delivery.

I’m proud to say we have a number of faculty already applying many of these concepts in their classes, but the challenge with any change is how to bring it to scale to maximize the benefits that can lead to further innovations.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Big Data is Coming

I remember my graduate advisor telling me, “If you want to work in community colleges, start in Institutional Research. Community colleges don’t know anything about themselves and you’ll learn about every area of the college because everyone needs data.” Twenty-five years later, that proved to be great advice because it was easy to find a job; I learned about most every area of the community college operation; and community colleges still know very little about themselves. 

The same is true here at MVCC, where individual faculty and staff know a great deal about their jobs, but the organization as a whole lacks the collective understanding of the factors that affect the college. One solution to this challenge is Big Data.

The increasing profile and interest in big data is now moving from the private sector to higher education through increased accountability and reporting requirements, performance-based funding, and the national student success agenda. In fact, SUNY’s annual conference last fall was presented with the overarching conference theme of “Big Data.”

A few years ago, I was intrigued when the employment projections said, “7 out of the 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2015 don’t exist yet.” A data scientist is an example of a new job category that is finding employment in big businesses like Amazon, Apple, and Google. Ever wonder how they know what books you might want to read or songs you might want to buy? It’s called data analytics or big data. I recently heard of a petabyte as a unit of computer memory that is 1024 terabytes, which in turn is 1024 gigabytes. I was not surprised that a new category was needed until I later learned that after petabytes, there are exabytes, zettabytes, yottabytes, brontobytes, and, the largest of all, geopbytes – talk about big data!

The collection and analysis of large databases to inform decision-making has been around for some time, but the evolution of the field is rapidly moving toward predictive analytics – using data to not only inform decision-making, but to predict human behavior based on intentional analysis.

Having always worked in community colleges, I’m hesitant to quickly translate business models and trends into the educational sector. However, predictive analytics and big data seem relevant and useful. Consider the following:
  • Students shouldn’t have to apply for graduation – we should have enough data to tell them when they’re eligible to graduate, right?
  • Why aren’t colleges able to better explain – specifically – swings in enrollment and the reasons for them?
  • If we know the factors that put students at risk, why aren’t more interventions done earlier in a student’s educational journey?
  • With the right data collection and analysis, shouldn’t colleges be able to STOP doing more things that don’t work and investing more in the things that do work?
  • We send so much data to the State and SUNY through mandatory reporting requirements that they know more about us than we do about ourselves.
MVCC recently joined the Achieving the Dream (ATD) national network as part of our commitment to student success. Now in its tenth year, the network has helped its member colleges enhance their ability to collect, analyze, and use data to inform decision-making at all levels. Many colleges have stopped doing things that they thought were good ideas and well-intentioned initiatives, because when they analyzed the data, they weren’t making a difference in student success. It is still very early in the process for us – we haven’t even attended the kickoff institute for new member colleges.  However, I am confident that MVCC’s membership in ATD will accelerate our entry into the world of Big Data, which will be a much more productive transition if we move there through our own initiative than being dragged there by some other entity. Who knows, we could even learn something about ourselves.

If you have any questions or comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.