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Data in a Time of Crisis: Institutional Research and COVID-19

Reading time: 5 minutes

By Earl Sires, Rapid Insight

When crisis strikes, everything feels up in the air. It’s difficult to see a clear path forward, and long-term planning tends to go out the window as short-term priorities take on greater importance. Decision-makers are often left scrambling for whatever they can hold onto to avoid getting swept away. That’s where data comes into play.

 At universities, data often lives in the realm of Institutional Research. In times of crisis, IR’s profile and importance increase greatly, and the pressure on their department increases in equal measure.

In an upcoming webinar, three experts in Institutional Research will discuss the impact that COVID-19 has had on their institutions, how they’ve managed existing responsibilities on top of increased requests for reports, and what conclusions can be drawn about data literacy in both the long and short term.

The webinar will feature:

  • Drew Thiemann, the Director of Institutional Research & Effectiveness at Bellarmine University
  • Laura Miller, the Director of Institutional Research at Messiah College
  • Joseph Harrod, the Associate Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

In this blog post, we will preview topics that will be elaborated on in the webinar. It will cover several ways that data can aid Universities in developing strategies to deal with crises that disrupt normal processes, as well as what lessons can be learned for the future.

Increased Demand for Data and Greater Pressure on IR

An observation made by all three experts is that the demand for data increases greatly when a crisis strikes. For institutional researchers, this means producing a greater volume of ad hoc reports. While this increases the workload for IR, it can also be seen as a welcome shift in a university’s approach to data.

A common desire among IR departments is that stakeholders request and make use of the rich data available, and many IR departments may find themselves fulfilling the kinds of requests they always wished they could be. In other words, during a crisis, it’s important for IR departments and Universities as a whole to remember the benefit data currently provides, as the same types of insights can inform decisions year-round when IR is brought into the conversation at a higher level.

It’s also important to keep in mind that regular reporting deadlines may or may not change. For example, Thiemann highlights that, despite COVID-19, the NPSAS timeline has not changed. In the webinar, the panelists will discuss strategies for maintaining existing responsibilities while satisfying new reporting requests.

Data in a Time of Crisis

The Impacts of a Crisis can be Unexpected

By its very nature, a crisis creates unexpected effects on regular operations. The expectation is typically that the effect will be a negative one, but that’s why referring to the data rather than relying on hunches is so critical.

While the impacts will vary widely by institution, you may find that your institution’s enrollment numbers are on-track with past years’ so far. IR can confirm or dispel notions about the coronavirus’s effect at your institution. Before taking steps to correct for a problem, make sure you have a data-informed understanding of its scope.

Steps Taken Now Can Improve Future Preparedness

While thinking and planning during a crisis narrows (by necessity) to the short-term, observing and documenting the response will have beneficial long-term effects. 

Harrod highlights an example of how a crisis can lead to innovation, citing the rapid development of an app that allows for virtual previews of his school. Because the coronavirus restricted the possibility of on-campus visits, the developers at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary produced and deployed the app on an extremely short timeframe.

Tracking the areas of operation that experienced added stress and the remedies for the issues they faced will help Universities to develop strategies to better prepare for future crises. Again, this is an area where IR’s capacity to collect and store data will be of immense value.

Person Writing on Notebook

A Spotlight For Data Literacy

IR departments are well aware of the value they provide to a university during times of crisis but also during regular operations. However, administrators and other key figures at a university are not always aware of the benefits available through their IR departments.

Times of crisis remind all decision-makers how useful and important data is, so crises can act as a launchpad for future discussions around integrating and expanding IR’s role at the institution. Thiemann’s IR department has experienced extensive growth in the past several years, and is now consulted on high-level discussions. While it’s most important to focus on immediate needs during a crisis, it’s worth noting instances and patterns that demonstrate IR’s value for future case-making.

Efficient Data Tools are Critical to an Effective Response

In a crisis, the type of data required will shift quickly. This creates an increased demand for ad hoc reports. Added to this is the challenge of a changing work environment. 

In the case of COVID-19, almost all personnel rapidly shifted to remote work. The usual systems of communication and workflows disappeared overnight. Teams had to collaborate in new ways from disparate locations. This necessitated flexibility and adaptability across the entire university. IR in particular, with its heavy reliance on systems and data, experienced a significant shift.

In order for IR to respond effectively in situations like this, efficient data tools are a requirement. Miller notes that Rapid Insight’s data prep software, Construct, allows her team to continue producing regularly-scheduled reports and quickly create new ones. Predict, Rapid Insight’s predictive analytics software, allows the team to constantly re-evaluate and make changes to their predictive models since much of the pre-coronavirus data does not directly apply to the new problems they are working to solve. Both tools make it possible to start new projects and continue ongoing work with minimal disruption.

Man at Window

The Upshot

A data-informed approach is critical to taking the right steps in recovering from COVID-19 and implementing strategies that correctly identify and address the issues your University is facing. 

Ideally, the upside of the pandemic is that universities will come to see data literacy as a critical, campus-wide objective. Data is important not just in times of crisis, but at all times. A data-informed strategy is one that both identifies and resolves the actual issue at hand, rather than assumptions about what might be causing a problem.

The three experts in IR will elaborate on all of these topics in the upcoming University Business webinar, which will also incorporate viewer questions. 

To see how a comprehensive, intuitive data analytics platform can improve operations in every department of your institution, visit our Higher Education page.

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