Are universities making the most of their big data?

It’s 2018 and Mario (18) isn’t sure which course units to take. He is struggling in his combined arts degree, he is behind on several assignments, and he is wondering if he has chosen the right mix of modules.

Sitting in the local library he switches on his Google Glasses and opens up his Degree Map dashboard invented by Civitas Learning. The dashboard is to assist students and shows how many credits Mario needs to complete his degree, what other degrees and majors are obtainable based on the modules he has taken so far, and what modules other people in a similar situation have chosen.

It also enables him to load a catalogue of modules into a year-planner to see which ones don’t clash with his current timetable. He decides that if he had to he could switch out of Literary Genres and take a module on History of English Language. That will be his fall-back plan if he doesn’t get the support he needs on his most troublesome subject, Genres.

Meanwhile, his hands are free, so he opens up his tablet and switches on the student-tutor dashboard at his university, Goldsmiths. The dashboard enables his tutor to keep track of his engagement with the course – how many lectures he attends, which virtual learning environments he has swiped into, which journals he has looked up and which books he has taken out of the library.

His tutor, Bob, has sent a message saying he can see that Mario might possibly be losing his way a little on the Genre module and wants to set up a Skype meeting so that he can suggest some helpful reading.

Mario says that would be great, but he is in a library and can’t talk. So they chat by instant message, firing questions and answers back and forth, and Mario discovers that he has been focusing too much on one of the most difficult analyses of tragedy and might find it easier to read some other books suggested by Bob.

This is an imaginary scenario, although some of the products already exist, as does the capability to provide this type of support, thanks to the vast amount of data on student behaviour that universities are able to collect – including every time they swipe a digital card, when they use a digital resource, order a journal or enter a facility.

Just as the big supermarket chains are using personal data to tailor their services to their customers, universities will increasingly be able to tailor their support and services for their own consumers, their students.

The UK’s higher education system is renowned globally for its high-quality provision, student experience and world-class research. Now there is an opportunity for the sector to shift into another realm – by using the data it constantly collects from students to improve student retention; better target student support and develop teaching and learning methods.

Students constantly leave digital footprints across their campuses and virtual learning environments – essentially this is valuable data that institutions can collect on where their students visit; what they download and how they work merely by analysing the cards they swipe to access buildings and library records or download e-books and lecture recordings.

A newly-released inquiry report by the Higher Education Commission entitled From Bricks to Clicks: The potential of data and analytics in higher education explores what the data revolution – or 'big data', defined as high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets – can mean for higher education and students.

The commission last year embarked on a 10-month inquiry to consider the effect data and analytics could have for university students, higher education institutions and the higher education sector generally.

Lord Norton, co-chair of the inquiry, explains that underpinning the research is the understanding that higher education is “at a point of change”, with an increasing focus on a more student (and customer) focused model, as signalled by the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 and the recently proposed Teaching Excellence Framework.

New entrants to the market are now offering flexible education online and an increasing focus on international competition and overseas markets.

“We felt we should focus specifically on the student experience angle as this has not been looked into before. Data presents many opportunities for the higher education sector to build on its already world-renowned status and analytics should be a cornerstone to that… (it) holds valuable information for universities looking to improve the students’ experience and learning,” he said.

Analytics is the science of examining raw data with the purpose of drawing conclusions about that information.

The report also says institutions must prepare for the growing demand for more instant data from the government, higher education sector and the public in the years ahead – and that means adopting sound data management principles to cope with the information flow.

However, equally essential is recognising the hard truth that the current data collection system is overly complicated, burdensome and involves unnecessary duplication where institutions are required to submit similar data to a range of bodies.

Lord Norton says the way to solve that issue – and thus ensure the data can be effectively used for the intended purpose – is for the Higher Education Statistics Agency to assume responsibility for rationalising the collection process across the industry.

Firmly supported by the commission, it is a move that will make the data collection process more frequent; reduce processing times and centralise various separate collections.

The report finds that while higher education is data rich, institutions are not maximising the opportunities data analytics presents, but more significantly, their workforce are data illiterate. This implies institutions must ensure that digital literacy, digital capability and sound data management strategies are central to their long-term plans if they seek to provide world-class teaching and support to 21st century students.

Yet, learning analytics – the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their context to understand and optimise learning and the environments in which they occur – is in its relative infancy in the UK.

Uses of analytics

There are many areas in which universities could benefit from making use of analytics. These include increasing retention; providing better feedback to students; capturing attendance data and enhancing teaching and learning.

The University of Huddersfield has used analytics to significantly improve retention. Its system collects attendance data from all time-tabled activities and generates responses based on analysis of previous cohort demographics, behaviours and outcomes. These might include simple automated emails and text messages or a sophisticated targeting of personalised support for students in the highest risk category, tailored to their circumstances.

As a result, drop-out rates have fallen from percentage levels in the high teens to well below 10%. The key is that the data enables early intervention.

“Support is offered well before the usual signs of significant problems are evident, ensuring that it [the university] tackles issues before they become deep-seated and hard to address,” the report says.

On a different tack, data can be used formatively to encourage students to reflect on how they are learning, or to initiate a conversation with a tutor.

At Liverpool John Moores University, a project evaluating the use of lecture capture software found that most students were using the recordings strategically, repeatedly watching sections of them to help them understand key aspects of the lecture or areas they knew they would be assessed on or activities they would be carrying out in the lab, the report notes.

The analysis persuaded the university to shift from mere lecture capture to education enhancement – instead of providing recordings of whole lectures, they began to provide recordings of key sections for which repeated instructions or explanation are useful, the report says.

As learning at university becomes increasingly digital, with more course material becoming available through virtual learning environments, augmented learning environments and increasing use of portable devices, such as wearable technology, the volume of data about a student’s learning will grow, and with it the capability to provide a more complete and powerful portrait of the student.

If data can be used so effectively to enhance student learning, it begs the question whether it can also be used to improve the quality of teaching. If the UK really is implementing a consumer-driven approach, will data analytics be used to help students ensure they are getting value for their £9,000 (US$12,900) tuition fees?

The report suggests that there could indeed be scope for using data on teaching performance under the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. However, there would be wariness among tutors about having their performance scrutinised. “This is an area that will become increasingly contentious in the future,” the report predicts.

Fully informed consent

It also warns that the general move towards exploiting data must follow hand-in-hand with ethical policies and codes of practice governing the use of student data to effectively address student privacy, data security and consent.

Specifically, in introducing learning analytics, higher education institutions must seek fully informed consent from their students to use their personal and learning data in analytics – and that permission must be again obtained when incorporating new data into the system or using existing data differently.

Similarly, the report recommends that the government should not exempt higher education institutions from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act and any new providers entering the market and receiving public funds must be brought within its scope.

It suggests that the Higher Education Statistics Agency, UK higher education, the further education and skills sector non-profit organisation Jisc, and Universities UK must work together to develop a sector-wide strategy for innovative data management.

Linked to that is a recommendation for institutions to review their internal data management approaches and ensure their data fits the purposes for which it was intended. They should ensure the digital agenda is being led at an appropriate level.

“Teaching and administrative staff must be equipped with the necessary skills to perform their roles in a digital, data-driven world. Staff should be provided with appropriate training and support to improve their digital capability and data management skills,” the report states.

In conclusion the commission finds higher education can lead the way in data collection, use and optimisation provided this is done with student consent and robust safeguards.

“By understanding data and the use of data analytics, institutions can ensure students are better taught and supported throughout their courses,” Lord Norton concludes.