Analyze This! Using Data Effectively
Is the emphasis on data overrated? We think an evidence-based approach is never overrated. In our experience, quality data minimizes uncertainties, ensures accountability and transparency, and provides opportunities for learning and understanding the market. Most importantly, it makes us relevant and competitive.
While relying on intuition is often prevalent in business, data provides safety—a secure strategy for making and defending decisions. As a public institution, we are accountable for our decisions and actions. Data enables accountability to students, the university, staff, instructors, community, partners and government.
Ryerson University in Toronto has a reputation for being a progressive institution known for delivering societally relevant programs. The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University is primarily viewed as a gateway to the labor market. The Chang School uses institutional, student, labor market, economic, and societal data to proactively anticipate and respond to emerging policies, stakeholder preferences, societal and industry needs, economic trends, evolving fields of study and practice, pedagogical innovations, and the competitive landscape.
From an operational perspective, data facilitates a better targeting of resources for optimal efficiencies. How do we use data to enhance student experiences, design relevant, up-to-date programming, and foster collaboration between diverse professional units?
Our approach involves the use of several strategies to support effective decision-making. This includes conducting:
- Primary and secondary research to inform the process of program development from inception to launch;
- Student and alumni surveys to drive iterative improvements, understand learners’ needs, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and build our brand;
- A balanced scorecard to track key performance indicators aligned to strategic and academic goals;
- Lifecycle analyses of certificate programs to inform optimal management and renewal;
- Environmental scans to understand the labor market and continuing education landscape we work in;
- Program evaluations to ensure that programs meet learner, societal, partner, funder, and institutional goals; and
- Labor market assessments to ensure alignment of current skills, competencies and workforce needs.
Student surveys and course evaluations are some of the most popular tools employed by higher education institutions to measure educational outcomes. We collect extensive learner feedback to gain in-depth knowledge of our students: what they want, what motivates them, and why they stay.
Key data sources that we routinely use include enrollment metrics, student and alumni feedback, instructor surveys, partner/employer interviews, labor market and industry reports, and scholarly and government publications, as well as the abundant anecdotal evidence we receive through various offices within The Chang School.
Like many of our higher education colleagues at other institutions, we face similar challenges in optimizing the use of data. These challenges may sound familiar to our readers. To name a few, they include the lack of availability, standardized or centralized data capture, documented baseline data, common definitions and metrics, specificity, data literacy across the institution, static context, accuracy and validity.
Data, data everywhere. We realize that a major reason for underutilized datasets is that they are contained within silos across most institutions. As members of a small research team dedicated to supporting The Chang School with analysis and insight, we understand the power and importance of collaboration. Diverse units such as Finance, Marketing, Operations, Business Systems, and Program Support help us to identify, mine and organize information so that it can be visualized, contextualized, and effectively translated. This effort highlights the advantage of drawing on cross-functional teams from all relevant parts of the organization to ensure that we operate to meet the needs of all stakeholders.
We find tremendous value in deriving insights from a variety of data sources. A difficult data quest is ahead of us: finding reliable and robust evidence to assess learners’ outcomes and the long-term impact of engaging in lifelong learning. New methodologies, fresh analytical approaches, and ideas for making data less intimidating and more user-friendly are the focus of our proactive efforts.
Although grounded in The Chang School experience, our approach (quantitative and qualitative) is universally applicable to the continuing education context and will serve to facilitate knowledge transfer and sharing of effective practices within the wider higher education community.
Management thinker and statistician W. Edwards Deming noted that, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” His words ring true and motivate our efforts. Our role enables the higher goal of engaging in evidence-based practice by turning data into information, information into insight, and insight into action that will benefit all of our clients and stakeholders.