Changing attitudes towards learning analytics in higher education can enhance attainment, retention and well-being.
There has been a reluctance from the UK’s higher education institutions to fully embrace learning analytics and the role that data can play in maximising student success. Concerns about privacy, an erosion of trust between the student body and the institution, and technological logistics have all slowed the evolution of learning analytics. But the tide is turning.
A wealth of evidence supports the assertion that attainment, retention and student well-being can be enhanced by data-driven insights into student behaviours. High-profile reports, such as Jisc’s Learning Analytics in Higher Education, have documented the positive influence of learning analytics on student retention and success. A roundtable event hosted by Times Higher Education and Education Software Solutions (ESS) in November 2018 explored the myriad issues surrounding the data-driven university, with student well-being a recurring theme of the discussions. Perhaps now the most pressing ethical question concerning higher education and data is whether universities can afford not to deploy learning analytics.
That is certainly how Graham Cooper sees it. As Head of Education at ESS, Cooper works with schools, colleges and universities to develop management information systems that work across all of their business processes. He believes that universities now almost have a moral imperative to use data insights to enhance pastoral care. “A lot of universities are moving in this direction and overcoming the ethical issues because the price of getting it wrong is just too high,” says Cooper. “There are too many stories in the news of students who are lost, who are lonely, who are not happy about being at university. And with the pressure of making new friends, new people, methods of teaching and learning that are different from those of their school, and being in a different city, it can lead to depression and worse.”
As Cooper notes, students entering into higher education are viewed and treated as adults, even though they are often less than a year older than they were when attending school. Those students might require a different level of support from students in their final year of study or on postgraduate courses. Data insights can enable universities to make informed decisions about how students are using their facilities, how resources can be allocated most efficiently and when and how to intervene at each stage of the student’s journey. How this looks in practice will differ across institutions. No one model fits all, but there are technological and practical concerns common to all universities.
There is no shortage of data. Universities amass a vast amount. But universities are large bureaucracies, often with legacy IT systems that are not all connected. Breaking down these silos of information and making everything centrally accessible is crucial. “Bringing the data together is much more difficult,” says Cooper. “It could be the library system, the learning system, some health data or data around the student’s background from their application form, or even socioeconomic data. There are all kinds of data that you can look at and pull stories from.”
Again, the issue of data collection and sharing across departments raises privacy issues, but Cooper believes that it is a matter of having the right safeguards and being transparent with students. “I think if they knew what the data could be used for and how it could be used for their benefit, there wouldn’t be as much concern around that,” he says.
How we interrogate data is an ever-evolving process. For learning analytics to work in practice, insights need to be agile. Once data is exported it is already out of date. Dashboards allow for the visualisation of patterns in multiple points of data, can easily be tailored for each department and are therefore ubiquitous tools in analysing data.
Nick Waters, Principal Solution Architect at ESS Consulting, works with universities to help them uncover hidden insights in their data and recognises dashboards as invaluable tools for noticing spikes in data – for example, a sudden period student absence. However, Waters believes that dashboards are only part of the solution.
“Every institution has dashboards coming out of their ears,” he says. “A dashboard may present you with those historical patterns, those historical insights, but how do you play back those insights to a wider audience, or a more senior audience that doesn’t have the time to be dipping in and out of these dashboards and filtering them by student? You want to be able to consolidate and play back the findings of those insights, so storyboarding, or storytelling, is a great tool that complements dashboards and reports, as well as predictive data, to say, ‘This is the view of the world and this is what we’ve found.’”
Waters believes that this ability to take a data insight and represent it on a PowerPoint slide or infographic can enhance an organisation’s ability to make the right decisions. He sees the culture around data changing. Universities recognise that it can give them a competitive advantage, that insights are not there to replace the human element of the campus experience but to enhance it. “You’ve got to put feedback into the hands of a human,” says Waters. “It’s about using that data and then servicing it for somebody who can pick it up, understand it, maybe understand a little bit more of the non-digital aspect, the non-data side of that student, then use that insight to have a conversation.”
Cooper likewise recognises this cultural shift, but he cautions that institutions must have the “capacity and capability” to make their data strategy effective. And that, ultimately, is a question of leadership. “You have got to have somebody who has got the status and the ability to knock heads together and make change happen,” he says. “Because if you are going to break down silos, connect systems and get departments talking to each other, that is not going to happen easily or overnight.”