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Technology Aims to Boost Graduation Rate

Innovative Collaboration Underway Between Academic Affairs and Information Technology

May 13, 2014

An innovative cross-divisional collaboration between Academic Affairs and Information Technology is on track to help improve graduation rates at Cal State Fullerton.

Located in Academic Affairs, Assistant Vice President for Research and Analytical Studies Edward Sullivan analyzes enrollment and census data and conducts extensive computer modeling to forecast and manage Cal State Fullerton's enrollment to the system-assigned targets.

Under Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Technology Officer Amir Dabirian, the Division of Information Technology oversees and maintains technology-based services throughout the university.

Led by Dabirian and Sullivan, a development team from the two divisions has created the "Student Success Dashboard," an online analytical tool to alert faculty members about their students' academic progress.

A tool to Track Progress

Currently in use by a small faculty test group, the "Student Success Dashboard" tracks and displays key academic performance indicators about students in real time, the way a car's speedometer graphically displays current speed and acceleration.

In operation, the dashboard interface draws upon a robust data repository integrating the previous day's record of student academic and enrollment transactions campuswide, to track and monitor the progress of first-time freshman and upper-division transfer students from their first day on campus until they graduate.

The data refreshes nightly, allowing advisers to be aware of changes in student academic profiles as they occur, particularly those changes that might put students' graduation at risk.

The hands-on tool provides “far superior awareness of our status as of the prior night,” Sullivan said. “It is the difference between the Pony Express rider bringing the news and the news appearing on your iPad. It is likely to be a game changer for our students.”

“The key is the integration of live and static data,” Dabirian agreed. “The live data evolves daily, providing the most up-to-date information on graduation rates."

Birth of a Notion

The idea was born in October 2012, as Sullivan and Dabirian sat in Meng Concert Hall listening to the first Convocation address by the University's new president, Mildred García.

Cal State Fullerton's 2011 six-year graduation rate is 50.1 percent. The top three institutions in the university’s national comparison group averaged 64.8 percent for the same period, according to The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.,- based research organization.

Clearly, the university had its work cut out for itself, and both men, separated by several rows of seats, found themselves wondering if better data — and providing others with easy access to it — could help make the difference.

Drawing on their prior experience with an earlier dashboard project, they reasoned that processing, analyzing and reporting enrollment data closer to real time might make it possible to identify students whose progress toward graduation was most at risk, in sufficient time to get them back on track.

Earlier identification, like an early warning system, could make intervention more timely, efficient and effective.

Building the Dashboard

Sullivan and Dabirian began their efforts in earnest in late October 2012. IT had experimented with a dashboard in 2011 to track student admissions and degrees, and Dabirian was confident IT could create a more automated dashboard with real-time functionality utilizing the same techniques and resources.

The two lost no time assembling what became known as the Student Success Dashboard Team, which included: Afshin Karimi, research analyst in Sullivan's Office of Institutional Research and Analytical Studies; Joseph Luzzi, senior director of enterprise applications; and data warehouse architect Divyatej Raghu.

After a month of rapid prototyping, they built a functioning model using sample data as a test, then spent the first five months of 2013 populating the data and coding the variables.

Sullivan’s group defined the application processes, determined the key performance indicators and designed the dashboard’s data tables and charts.

Meanwhile, Dabirian's staff customized Oracle’s Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition Suite, an off-the-shelf dashboard, and integrated it with the University’s data warehouse.

By the time they finished in late spring 2013, Sullivan and Dabirian’s team had produced Cal State Fullerton's first Student Success Dashboard, an intuitive interface of bar graphs and charts displaying the state of an individual student's key performance indicators in an easy-to-scan, real-time snapshot of their progress toward their degree.

A Model Worth Emulating

During the fall semester, select faculty members logged onto the dashboard and tested it. Kari A. Knutson-Miller, chair and professor of child and adolescent studies, is using it to determine her department’s graduation rate and to identify the students who need help figuring out their path to graduation.

Susamma Barua, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, is already offering advice on securing financial aid and scholarships to students struggling with financial hardship.

“Often, our students do not feel comfortable seeking help," Barua said, "so this tool makes it possible for us to reach out to them and let them know there is someone here looking out for them so they can stay in the program and finish.”

Jeff Gold, senior director of academic technology services of the California State University system’s Centers for Innovation, praised CSUF for being among the first of the 23 CSU campuses to develop a dashboard and for taking a leadership role within the CSU system, “providing guidance and support to other campuses looking to implement similar student success dashboard technologies.

“Data collection occurs over many departments across college campuses. When siloed away, this data only serves limited purposes,” Gold added. “The collaborative efforts of the Fullerton IT and IR departments succeeded in compiling disparate sources of data, organizing it to ensure accuracy, and displaying it in a user-friendly and intuitive format. I believe this is an innovative way to address the challenge of raising graduation rates.”

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