The December 15, 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education's Wired Campus blog by Marc Parry shared news about a groundbreaking project we have taken on at WCET. It describes our efforts to create a single, federated database of de-identified student records contributed by multiple universities and colleges. Six forward-thinking WCET member institutions have worked together this past six months to see if it was possible to analyze variables common across these institutions to look for patterns that can inform us about student loss and momentum. I'm pleased to say that we have succeeded. Baby steps. But still.
We've received a lot of questions. Here are a few answers. There will be more.
This is a multi-phased project. We are concluding our work on Phase 1. The best is yet to be.
Our first phase focused on demonstrating that it is posssible to get multiple postsecondary institutions here in the US to contribute their data to create a single unified data set. We are now applying a variety of descriptive, inferential and predictive analyses to look for patterns showing variables likely to affect student success.
Phase 1 = Proof of Concept. Creating a single federated data set from the de-identified student records from six unique institutions has never been done before.
We've started with 6 schools. We are adding additional schools as we continue our efforts to build out the federated data set. While 640,000 students records and 3.1 million course records are a lot more than most of us are used to working with, it is still just a sample from 6 schools.
We've started with 34 variables that are common across each of the institutional partners. Much of our current work has focused on establishing common definitions of these variables to ensure that comparisons and aggregations are valid, reliable and repeatable. There will be more variables.
We are currently focused on online programs. Just about every single transaction associated with an online program is digitally captured and stored somewhere. It seemed the obvious, self-evident place to begin.
We've focused on pattern strategy exploration, not null hypothesis testing (at least not in the conventional sense).
We're really not trying to answer research questions using big data analysis techniques. Not yet. We'll get there. First things first. The journey of a thousand miles begings with the first steps.
More to the point...if we do our work right, then perhaps some day YOU will be answering YOUR research questions using the federated data set using big data analysis techniques.
The team working on this effort brings expertise from institutional research, statistical analysis, quant and qual research, cognition and instruction, online learning, higher ed administration, educational public policy, project management, and commercial software development. They come from the public and for-profit sectors. Then are from community colleges and 4 year comprehensives. Several of our institutional partners are already award-winning, acknowledged practice leaders in the hot, hot, hot domain of learning analytics. These are some of the smartest, most dedicated, creative, committed people I know.
None of us - not WCET, not the core team of experts, not any of our fabulous institutional partners - are making any kinds of reccommendations from our findings yet. You may have noticed that my quote in the Chronicle was about as non-specific as one can possibly be. But be assured, there are going to be some very interesting implications for practice and policy that will emerge as the new patterns we are finding are more sharply focused in the coming weeks and months.
Yes of course we are going to share our findings. Sharing is a core WCET value. We exist to share. That's what Cooperatives do.