New Orleans was host to the 56th Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) from 31 May to 3 June 2016. I was fortunate enough to attend as the recipient of the 2015 Zimmer Travel Fellowship—and what a Forum it was!
The Forum proper began with a fascinating keynote address from David Longanecker (President of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education), whose presentation on the growing importance of evidence-based change contained many valuable lessons for local and international attendees alike, of whom there were more than two thousand in total.
This gave way to a full day of concurrent sessions on topics ranging from the strategic to the operational. Predictive modelling was a hot topic at this year’s Forum, with quite a number of sessions focused on predicting enrolment, retention, graduation and rather ambitiously, post-graduation outcomes and satisfaction. Data visualisation was also a popular theme; various institutions showed how they present data in visually-appealing and informative ways. Such was the quality of the presentations that I found myself—a vocal advocate of tabulated results—appreciating the beauty of a well-constructed infographic.
My main contribution to the first day was as an invited panellist at a symposium on the topic of assessing the student experience. This session saw presenters from Australia, Finland, the UK and USA discuss approaches to measuring the student experience that are common in their respective homelands. I spoke on my experiences with the Australian Graduate Survey (AGS) and Student Experience Survey (SES), including how the data have been used by institutions and government to improve the quality of the student experience within Australian higher education.
The second day was again comprised of concurrent sessions. I attended some excellent sessions, memorably one that used a random experiment to demonstrate that survey response rates could be significantly improved through carefully designed communications. During the lunch break, I explored the extensive poster gallery, in which institutional researchers presented the results of their investigations, with many using snappy and eye-catching infographics. I then finished the day with some more interesting sessions on predictive analytics.
The final day commenced with an informative session on how labour market information can be used to assess the ongoing viability of academic programs in an era when graduate employment is a key objective for many institutions. The Forum then concluded with a brunch, which included an insightful keynote address from Ben Castleman (Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia) on using data, and insights from the field of behavioural science, to help students make more active and informed decisions about their postsecondary education. Castleman’s address highlighted the key role of institutional researchers in helping to develop and evaluate data-driven strategies to improve student outcomes at their institutions.
The Forum was also a good chance for me to meet colleagues from around the world and discuss the challenges we all face as institutional researchers, from operational matters of increasing response rates and presenting data to diverse audiences, through to ensuring that our voices are heard within our institutions.
The AIR Forum is a landmark conference in the world of institutional research. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the field to get there in 2017.
Graduate Careers Australia
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