What does it mean to be a university in the 21st century? 

Universities have always aimed to foster student curiosity, produce lifelong learners, and empower post-graduation success. However, with more diverse student demographics, rapidly evolving technology, and mounting social, political, economic, and environmental issues, many established colleges and universities must operate differently to achieve those goals in today’s landscape.

At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), campus leaders are turning to data to accomplish this transformation. Over the last few years, the UCI Office of Data and Information Technology has overseen a campuswide initiative called UCI Comprehensive Analytics for Student Success (COMPASS). UCI COMPASS is a collaborative effort between units to identify, collect, and analyze relevant data to promote student success across campus.

Tom Andriola (Vice Chancellor for Data and Information Technology, Chief Digital Officer) recently hosted a panel featuring campus leaders at the forefront of the effort to discuss how they’re leveraging data to transform university structures. The panel included Richard Arum (Professor of Sociology and Education); Michael Dennin (Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Dean of Undergraduate Education, Professor of Physics and Astronomy); Patricia Morales (Vice Provost for Enrollment Management), and Diane O’Dowd (Vice Provost for Academic Personnel, HHMI Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology).

A central theme that emerged was the importance of data collection and developing new data measurement methods. The panelists all agreed that UCI is home to a vast store of data that has the potential to provide deep insight into student experiences and to inform university policies and practices. However, much of UCI’s data is underutilized due to the absence of collection measures or lack of access and visibility.

Professor Arum, who serves as Principal Investigator for the UCI Measuring Undergraduate Success Trajectories (MUST) Project, highlighted some of the new measures developed to tap into previously overlooked data on the student experience. Part of his work used UCI’s Canvas learning management system to compile information on online classroom behavior. By collecting data on how students interacted with their Canvas course spaces, collaborated with peers, and accessed course materials, researchers were able to track student academic engagement across individual courses. Outside of the classroom, Professor Arum and his team introduced student surveys to record various non-academic aspects of the student experience. The surveys collect information about student living situations, physical and emotional state, and other experiential information that has not been recorded previously. These new measures, combined with existing administrative data such as student enrollment history and transcripts, can then be used to create a more comprehensive understanding of the student experience and identify areas of improvement.

For Professor Arum, the development of these new measures represents UCI’s commitment to adapting to the modern educational environment. “To really do something transformative in this space, you have to develop a different set of measures,” he explained. “If you’re just using the old 20th-century measures from administrative data systems, you’re not going to be able to transform and move the institution forward.” 

Vice Provost Morales emphasized the importance of distributing data to campus administrators to enable them to make informed decisions and create more welcoming environments for students. As Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, she noted that students provide a plethora of information as part of the application and financial aid processes. Not only do students report their demographic and financial information, but they also share their personal life experiences and educational journeys prior to UCI. However, this information wasn’t being utilized beyond admission decisions or financial aid awards. Rather than simply letting this valuable data go to waste, she recognized that combining and sharing these data points could provide a more holistic view of UCI’s student body. This could then be used to make better decisions about university support services and policies.

“I felt we had an obligation to make our university receptive to [our students] and ensure that we are keeping pace with who our students are and what they’re telling us about themselves,” she said. “There’s just a wealth of information that, when it’s pieced together, helps develop a picture that then can be shared with other colleagues, faculty and deans, and campus planners to ensure that we’re keeping ahead of what the students will need.”

While the panelists all affirmed the importance of collecting and distributing data, they also stressed the necessity of using data to inform new university policies and practices. Vice Provost O’Dowd, whose office oversees the faculty merit and promotion system, offered an example of how collecting and evaluating new data transformed the faculty review process. She explained that in the past, merit and promotion evaluations were often dominated by faculty research contributions at the expense of teaching or service. To ensure that faculty were prioritizing student-focused instruction, her office and the Academic Senate introduced a requirement for faculty to submit a reflective teaching statement, where they discussed what they were doing in the classroom and the impact of these practices.

When considered alongside student course evaluations, these pieces of information allowed for a more comprehensive review of each faculty member’s teaching practices and course design. This data collection effort ensured that teaching contributions carried the same weight as research contributions and encouraged faculty to prioritize student instruction. Additionally, Vice Provost O’Dowd pointed out that, because the review process begins at the departmental level, reviews led to the sharing of effective teaching strategies among peers. In this way, data collection directly contributed to changed policies and practices at both administrative and faculty levels.

Vice Provost O’Dowd’s explanation of how her office updated the faculty merit and promotion process is an excellent example of how data can be used to transform university structures. However, this process must occur at multiple levels across campus to truly support student success. Recognizing this, Vice Provost Dennin discussed two projects that the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL) is driving to scale this process of translating data into action across different units and departments.

One of the projects—that shares the same name as the campuswide initiative—is UCI Comprehensive Analytics for Student Success (COMPASS). UCI COMPASS is a cross-functional initiative focused on compiling relevant, actionable student data for campus advisors, faculty, and administrators to improve student outcomes and success. UCI COMPASS leverages data from UCI Enrollment Management to generate reports on student demographics, enrollment, academic performance, and other metrics. These reports are then processed using OVPTL’s teaching and learning analytics to generate appropriate interventions to maximize student success. The suggested practice and policy changes are tailored for specific groups of instructors, advisors, and administrative leaders. In short, UCI COMPASS places critical student data in the hands of university administrators and staff and helps them identify the practice and policy changes necessary to better serve student populations.

Vice Provost Dennin also introduced the new UCI Postsecondary Education Research & Implementation Institute (PERI²). PERI² is a collaborative effort between an interdisciplinary team of leaders, including the OVPTL and the School of Education, that aims to foster equitable student success through research and implementation. PERI² not only supports research conducted by the School of Education’s Professors of Teaching and other members, but also analyzes and transforms these findings into policy and practice recommendations that can be implemented across campus. 

Expanding beyond UCI, PERI² also publishes their findings and offers their services to other postsecondary institutions looking to adapt to the modern educational landscape. As Vice Provost Dennin pointed out, “As a research university, our obligation is to do the research and then actually translate it into action and success. PERI² is the kind of institution that makes that formal and visible.”

Throughout their discussion, the panelists covered data collection and policy implementation efforts in much more detail than could be summarized here. If you’re interested in learning more about UCI COMPASS and how campus leaders  are using data to reinvent university structures, then we invite you to watch the full panel. For more information on the offices and initiatives that were discussed, use the links listed below: