The benefits of big data

A new report, From Bricks to Clicks: The potential of data and analytics in higher education, published on 26 January highlights the importance of data in the future higher education system and warns of the dangers of not acting now to embrace the opportunities that it offers. The report is the outcome of an inquiry led by the United Kingdom's Higher Education Commission, an independent body that works across the UK political parties, industry and education.

The inquiry spent 10 months gathering evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals about the potential that data holds to improve the educational experience for students in higher education.

It concluded that there is huge potential, in particular through careful analysis of data using sophisticated analysis tools, or analytics as it is known. Analytics tools have been in the marketplace for several years now and have received a lot of attention from the ed tech world, but the report found that they have failed to be taken up by most UK universities.

Higher education is rich in high-quality data, but it is frequently under-used and, perhaps worse, duplicated in many different collection processes. At a time when the UK higher education system is becoming increasingly fragmented and competitive, universities need to make the most of all the assets that they already have.

The UK is fortunate to have in place consistent collection of key performance data about universities from all UK universities, supported by a well-established and efficient centralised infrastructure, including its Higher Education Statistics Agency, HESA.

The report recommends that HESA and other central bodies work with universities to develop a UK-wide strategy to capitalise on this infrastructure and help universities – and particularly students – to get more value from the data that is collected.

A lot of work may be needed to put this in place and data capabilities may be limited, but universities should work together to share expertise and approaches so that the sector can move forward together.

A learning tool

There are other clear benefits to having a strategic approach to data. Evidence cited in the report shows that students can gain tangible benefits from data and analytics.

The report includes fascinating case studies of the UK's Open University and Nottingham Trent University which are both using the power of analytics to spot when students may be struggling with their studies and to predict when they may be in danger of dropping out.

In both cases, students are given an 'engagement score', intended to reflect their engagement with their studies. The score is calculated by bringing together data from a number of sources, typically use of online resources, attendance at lectures or the equivalent, and submission of coursework.

Research in a number of universities has shown that this type of engagement score is a very good predictor of how successful the student will be in their final degree and the score is intended for formative purposes rather than summative – that is, to help each student to perform as well as they are able to, by helping them understand more about their own progress, rather than as a formal part of their studies.

We think that this is essential as there would otherwise be a strong incentive for students to try to 'game' the system, trying to artificially inflate their engagement score, rather than using it as a tool to help them understand their own approach to learning and make changes where needed.

Teaching staff have also been positive about this use of analytics as it can help them to be more aware of how their students are progressing so they can support them better, and in a more timely way.

That said, we should not underplay the level of cultural change that may be needed by university staff where analytics systems are put in place. We recommend in the report that universities need to think carefully about staff development in digital literacies and put in place plans to support any development that may be needed.

Ethical issues

There are sensitive ethical issues connected with what data is collected about students and their behaviour, what use is made of it and by whom. We are still early in the development of analytics – and indeed, digital learning is only now being taken seriously by many institutions – so it is difficult to predict exactly what the future may hold.

For this reason, we advise universities to be careful about how they use analytics and data, to develop clear and well-communicated policies and practices for data and analytics and, above all, to ensure that students are aware of what data is being collected and why.

The report makes it clear that there is huge potential to be gained from a strategic and tactical use of data throughout all of the activities of the university. However, quite significant change may be needed to get a university from where it is now to a new, data-driven state.

The report emphasises the importance of leadership from senior management and recommends that the digital agenda be led at an appropriate level within their institution. A clear strategy for all things digital is essential for universities that wish to remain effective and support their students through their learning journey.

Sarah Porter is an independent expert on the use of technology in education and research and is co-chair of the From Bricks to Clicks: The potential of data and analytics in higher education report.