What Would You Like to Know? And How? A Conversation about the BRIC Project

Mission College, ASCCC Past President
Dean, Planning, Research and Institutional Effectiveness

This article explores the philosophy of the Bridging Research, Information and Culture project (BRIC). BRIC grew out of the previous Basic Skills Outcomes and Fostering a Culture of Evidence and Inquiry project (BSOC) that 2009 Fall Plenary Session delegates heard described in Rob Johnstone’s general session speech, and in the breakout that featured Rob, Janet Fulks, Bob Pacheco and Ian Walton. This article is Ian’s interpretation and exposition of an extended interview/conversation between Rob and Ian.

Ian: Where did BRIC come from and where’s it going?

Rob: Both BSOC and BRIC are RP Group projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation, and can help faculty and students in areas where they care – often passionately. Field research for BSOC confirmed that data is widely used in our colleges. But the key point for faculty is that the current focus is quite often on institutional metrics and external accountability. These “big” metrics such as graduation numbers or transfer rates are clearly important, but are relatively isolated from things faculty can do in their classes. In many cases, grass roots practitioners – be they classroom faculty or student service professionals - don’t get the help or the answers that they need to really enhance their students’ experience. The term “data” turns off many faculty by implying the superiority of narrow quantitative measures rather than the much broader use of observation, analysis and evidence that includes qualitative characteristics. Many local senate presidents report that the initial accreditation implementation of student learning outcomes (SLOs) headed them in some directions that were less than useful.

The goal of the BRIC project is to help people discover or recapture passionate inquiry and then use it to help students. Correctly gathered and applied, data/evidence can help with that. Although it varies widely, the current state of much of the research in our system is not at a level that focuses on or is accessible to practitioners. Very few people (and you know who you are) get excited about measures such as productivity and FTES. While they are critical to helping the campus operate efficiently, they really are means to an end – not the end themselves. But somewhere along the way, we may very well have lost the student in our focus on the process metrics. There are many areas of inquiry that can help us regain that focus – and we would argue that most of them involve working directly with faculty and staff to determine the key questions and designing approaches that get the subject matter experts the information they need. While major systemic changes are a laudable goal, we would argue that what faculty need is assistance in helping design a series of smaller changes at the classroom and departmental/program level. Then the question becomes what should you try, and how do you decide which changes to keep?

Ian: So specifically what’s in it for faculty – why should they play?

Rob: While we’re certainly all in this together, faculty fundamentally affect student learning in a much more direct way than most others. Many have an innate belief that good research helps students, and many are always “researching” in their classrooms through continuous evaluation, monitoring and adjustment of activities in their classes. But they also understand that research often hasn’t really been documented at the classroom level. Research should focus on questions that faculty really need answered. For example: what happens as students go through our redesigned math sequence? How effective is writing as a preparation for general education courses? Community college instructors are passionate about teaching and are experts in their discipline. So, the question is - how can we improve conditions for faculty and students and document it for skeptics? We’ve seen many examples of individual faculty who carefully define a question and research approach, and get satisfaction out of informative, thoughtful answers that help them determine improved or new courses of action. We need to broaden this approach so that large numbers of classroom faculty and student service professionals can work together with this type of approach to gain a better understanding of their students, and so improve their many and varied outcomes. In this way student learning outcomes (SLO) become authentic and useful tools rather than mere compliance.

Ian: Explain more why this BRIC approach is different from the annual generation of numerical reports that has been the way some colleges comply with Accreditation Standards for SLOs.

Rob: The movement to accountability through a focus on SLOs in accreditation had and probably still has great intentions; it has attempted to focus us on capturing information about students that will help us improve their achievement of their goals. The Academic Senate, through its many efforts including workshops, has tried very hard to ensure that SLO development and assessment be authentic. But, unfortunately, the need for a deeply ingrained across-the-board implementation system has led to a check box/compliance approach in some places. At the moment there’s not enough understanding of how to resolve the tension between compliance and passionate inquiry. We should be able to identify what’s worked, learn from it, and build on that. BRIC aims to involve more people and a wider variety of techniques, and to capture the enthusiasm of diverse questions and answers. There’s room for people who don’t like their current campus approach to accreditation. There are a lot more opportunities to use inquiry in thoughtful, exciting, and productive ways. We fundamentally believe that by doing so, we will not only ensure that we capture the information we need to improve the conditions for learning, but along the way we will also create a more authentic system that will satisfy accreditation mandates.

Ian: What do we mean by “thoughtful conversations using evidence?”

Rob: You might call it “backward research design.” You start with faculty and ask them, what are you interested in learning about your students, pedagogy, or classroom situation? What information would you need to make decisions about changes and improvements? For example: is group work successful in this specific assignment? Would prerequisites help this specific class population? Did this change in presentation produce a noticeable effect on students? While there are often a few “official” learning outcomes for a class or a program, there’s an infinitely broader collection of what might define success for an individual student, and therefore many more types of questions that you might ask and adjustments you might make. The goal of BRIC is to empower a significantly larger group of faculty to explore those questions, to obtain answers that are convincing to others, and to create a college culture that supports such inquiry.

Ian: What should I expect if my college is selected for the technical assistance portion of the BRIC Project?

Rob: The BRIC project has three main parts. In the first, we will be working with the institutional research professionals on all 112 campuses to attempt to help streamline some of the more common tasks that all campuses face. In doing so, we hope that we will free up research capacity for the more interesting practitioner level inquiry described above. The second arm of BRIC will focus on a series of online and in-person professional development opportunities that will also benefit a wider range of people on all 112 campuses. The third part of the grant – the Technical Assistance Program – may be where the most magic happens.

For the 12-15 colleges selected to get technical assistance from the project in the first year (2010-11), each will get three site visits over the year plus assorted follow-up from a team of two or three people. One member of each team will be a faculty member. The visiting team will come in to your environment and help you determine how to use your existing structures (e.g., student success committee or basic skills committee or specific department) to shape research questions in an ongoing manner. The key question is - what would you like to change in your course, your curricular sequence, or your department? Your practitioners will get together and ask how they would like information to drive decision making and activity, rather than simply be told the answers or even told the questions. The process will absolutely acknowledge the expertise of faculty and encourage working closely with researchers and administrators to move forward. The visiting team will facilitate discussions that help to create a thoughtful, inquiring culture and process. The motive is to move the needle on deeper and more authentic use of evidence in a way that is flexible for your structure, your culture, your students and your campus.

Ian: But aren’t you just going to be another outside group telling us what to do?

Rob: That’s certainly not our intention. While the funding comes from the Hewlett Foundation, the players are insiders – faculty and researchers from our own colleges helping each other. The modules and the materials used with the selected colleges will be suggestions for discussion; they will not provide a canned answer or even the perfect question.

The modules and our team will help you to explore the use of information at different levels and encourage greater participation and variety. It’s all about an approach and a mindset. Our work clearly won’t provide budget and implementation for any changes suggested by the research you undertake, but it should help you identify good ideas and make a stronger case for those ideas in your institution. It will add to your toolkit to convince other people. In addition, many questions have answers that are budget independent. Successful inquiry will help you set the parameters – for example: are you looking for success, or does it have to be success at no additional cost?

Ian: My local college administrator/researcher needs an attitude adjustment. Are you going to do that for me?

Rob: Well, the world of research and administration has certainly shifted in the last decade. It’s clearly no longer enough for a campus researcher to simply sit in a back office and produce reports, hoping that they’re read, digested, understood, and acted upon; there needs to be an active partnership between institutional research (IR) and the practitioners on the campus. When you’re riding such a wave of change, there are always going to be individuals – faculty, staff, administrators and researchers – who are at varying stages of evolution on this learning curve. Many colleges have evolved an excellent working relationship that is producing really interesting work. Of course there are some campuses where this hasn’t really happened yet, for a variety of reasons. But we can encourage this change of perspective both locally and statewide. Faculty need to want to participate, and administrators need to be supportive. BRIC can help spread this mindset at professional conferences and by developing online tools and forums, as well as in the specific college visits– just as the Academic Senate moves faculty opinion through debate and presentation.

Ian: It’s really easy to “get a number.” We need to move on to getting useful, meaningful evidence in every shape and form that results in improving the entire student experience.

Rob: BRIC will try to help.

Rob Johnstone is Project Director for BRIC. Ian Walton and Janet Fulks are faculty participants in the project.