Friday, March 25, 2011

"The Functions of Institutional Research" (4)


Assumptions are involved in institutional research. If, in the previous example, a unit cost is multiplied by a projected count of student credit hours to produce a future year cost estimate, an assumption is that the unit cost is not a function of department size (or of any other variable which may change between the current and projected year). There are assumptions about the meaning and accuracy--validity and reliability--of the basic data, and the researcher needs to recognize the assumptions and to point them out to the consumers of the research. It is often useful to review the assumptions with the consumer before the project is begun. The interpretation and implications of the results of a project are typically influenced by the assumptions involved. An understanding of, and selection from among, alternative assumptions before the project is begun can help insure that the eventual results are interpreted properly and that implications are derived appropriately.

Communication of the findings of institutional research takes a variety of forms. Oral reports, in person or on the phone, are made to answer generally straightforward questions. A table or two or a display of data in a chart or graph may constitute a sufficient report. Letters or memoranda are used as brief reports which do not merit or require general distribution. Written reports, including tables and, perhaps, graphs and charts, are produced for many projects. The audiences for reports of institutional research are typically administrators who often are served best by a concise report--an executive summary--which emphasizes the results and, perhaps, implications of the project. However, because faculty members are often consumers of institutional research, and because administrators have faculty backgrounds and perspectives, it is well to have a complete report in the file for use in answering questions of detail which may be raised. The more complete report includes relationships to previous research and a description of the methodology in sufficient detail that the study could be replicated. The more complete technical report is written as though intended for publication to serve an audience of other researchers.

Personal computers, local area networks, electronic mail, desk-top publishing, and advanced graphics capabilities have added options for the communication of results of institutional research. For example, a table of data or, even, a complete "fact book" may be stored in a computer data base to be retrieved by anyone with need for the data. Complete reports may be treated similarly. Data and reports stored electronically or on microfiche can save much space in file cabinets and be readily available. Questions about results may be asked and answered, and dialogues on the topic of the research may be carried out, by electronic mail. The existence of sophisticated graphics capabilities has drawn attention to this form of communication.

A consideration of the content of an institutional research report may illuminate the nature of the activity and the manner in which it aids planning, policy formulation and decision making. As already noted, institutional research consists of analysis which results in information. Data analysis yields results, generally quantitative, which constitute what may be considered an initial level of information. Results are, of course, included in the report. A next level of information may be added by means of an analyses of the results in the context of the purpose of the research, the assumptions used, and other factors. This analysis constitutes the interpretation of the research, may produce generalizations and adds meaning to the results. The analysis of the interpretations in the context of the institutional environment may produce implications. A final stage of analysis may result in recommendations. The extent to which this sequence of analysis applies to individual projects, of course, varies. The point is that the sequence represents a movement from analyses which are clearly institutional research toward analyses which are characteristic of planning, policy formulation and decision making. At each step, additional considerations are brought to bear. As the new considerations begin to depart from those of fact and evidence, the analysis loses characteristics of research. Certainly the researcher should illuminate the subject of the research to whatever degree the evidence and the researcher's experience and expertise permit. At the same time, the distinction between the roles of the researcher and the decision maker needs to be maintained.

While written reports are important products of institutional research, it is often desirable to attempt to ensure that research undertaken is relevant and research completed is useful. Some institutional research offices draw upon advisory committees or upon networks of users of research to ensure that the projects undertaken are relevant to the issues faced by the college or university. After a report is written and distributed, the contribution it makes often can be increased by some follow-up techniques designed to ensure that the research results are understood correctly and interpreted appropriately.

Basic Tools of Institutional Research
There are several techniques or tools of institutional research which deserve special attention because, even though they are not unique to institutional research, they are used frequently.

First, the conversion of data in the institution's operational data processing systems into management information frequently is a responsibility of the office of institutional research. The activity undertaken to fulfill this responsibility is not guided by a specific research purpose in the sense of a plan to be prepared, a policy to be established or a decision to be made. Rather, the purpose is to develop a set of data which provides a meaningful picture of the institution and its operation and which is comprehensive and flexible enough to provide answers to unanticipated questions. One product may be a set of summary reports which is prepared regularly and consistently and which, consequently, reveals trends in key institutional characteristics. Another product is a data base from which ad hoc analyses may be produced on demand with relative ease.

Computer technology has enabled the development of such management information systems. This technology allows not only the accumulation of consistent subtotals (by department) and totals (for the institution) of various types of data describing students, courses, employees, finances, and facilities, but by combining the various types of data, it also allows reports of, for example, student credit hours per full-time-equivalent faculty member, expenditures per student, and square feet of space per student contact hour. By taking advantage of the capability of the computer to store, retrieve, and manipulate data, a variety of types of information descriptive of the institution and its functioning can be produced. Offices of institutional research are involved, sometimes centrally, in the development and operation of computer information systems, because these offices are expected to possess expertise in all types of institutional data and in their uses for planning, policy formulation and decision making.

It might appear that the task of converting data from the institution's operating data systems into management information requires only computer programming. Usually this is not the case. Inconsistencies between data systems sometimes seem to be the rule and not the exception. It is difficult to prepare a meaningful report of student credit hours per full-time-equivalent faculty by department when the student information system and the personnel or budget systems make use of differing sets of departments. The function of data administration, mentioned previously, exists because of the recognition of such difficulties. This function requires in-depth knowledge not only of the several operating data systems, but also of the nature of the information needed for planning, policy formulation, and decision making.

The decision support system (DSS) constitutes another method of carrying out institutional research. Fundamentally, a DSS is a data base and computer software for using the data base which are made available to the decision maker as an aid in making decisions. The central feature of the DSS methodology is that it enables the decision maker to do the analysis, rather than making use of analyses carried out by someone else. The decision maker decides what analysis to carry out and understands the implications and limitations of the information produced by the analysis. A decision support system is developed by a technical person, often a member of the institutional research staff, working closely with the decision maker. The development of a decision support system typically is a continuous process; as the system is used, features of it are refined and new features are added. The relationship between the institutional researcher and the decision maker is a close and continuing one.

A relative of the decision support system is the executive support system (ESS), also referred to as the executive information system (EIS). (Some authorities distinguish between executive support and executive information systems.) An ESS can be defined as the use of computer technology to serve (a portion of) the information needs of an executive officer, whose responsibilities are more general than those of the decision maker served by a DSS. An ESS may include the capabilities of a DSS, but can be expected to have such additional features as electronic mail, electronic conferencing, and powerful graphics. The executive may use the system principally to acquire information about the college or university, rather than as an aid in making specific decisions. Advanced computer technology which makes the system very easy to use is often involved. The ESS is developed in much the same manner as the DSS; the technician with institutional research expertise or support works with the executive in a mode which accommodates the limited amount of time the executive has available for the activity.

Modeling is also employed in institutional analysis. It involves the specification of mathematical relationships among variables of institutional operation. Parameters of the mathematical relationships are derived from historical data and are used to project variables of the model for future years. By varying values of model parameters, which reflect assumptions about future relationships, answers to "what-if" questions may be derived. Enrollment projections are developed using enrollment and student-flow models. Faculty-flow models are used to project numbers of faculty in various categories, particularly numbers on tenure, and elaborate cost and budget projection models are used. It is not unusual to find that the most difficult step in applying the simulation-model techniques is the development of the required (consistently defined and developed) historical or base-line data. Models often are included in the software components of decision support systems and executive support systems.

(to be continued)

No comments:

Post a Comment