Joined-up student data and AI can combat loneliness on campus

Student data must be used more effectively to personalise courses, encourage engagement and identify at-risk undergraduates, says Iain Sloan

August 21, 2022
Happy and sad toast

An alarming one in four students at UK universities feel lonely most or all of the time, according to a survey recently conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute. That’s more than double the one in 10 adults from the general population who say they experience loneliness.

Although the survey was carried out at the tail end of pandemic-related disruption to university life, these figures still highlight a considerable challenge for the higher education sector, especially as the cost-of-living crisis threatens to limit opportunities for students to socialise. 

The survey results also come as a lively debate continues over whether university students are receiving both a quality education and value for money, particularly when many, and sometimes all, lectures at some institutions take place online.

But this debate misses a critical point: some students loved the flexibility provided by online learning during the pandemic, which allowed them to study around work or other commitments. Others fell behind, however, as they hadn’t developed the independent learning skills they needed to stay on track, while others admit suffering from feelings of isolation from their tutors and peers, even while coping academically.

Many students are now relishing the experience of attending large in-person lectures, where they can ask lots of questions. Others still find learning in large groups intimidating and sit silent and unnoticed in the back row.  

Having a clear understanding of how students learn best is one key question. Institutions have started to address this by asking students directly what face-to-face experiences really matter to them and which services could be more effective if delivered digitally.

But there may be no one-size-fits-all answer to such questions. What this means is that we should no longer be asking whether online learning should outlive the pandemic, but rather what role it could play to help balance support for students’ academic, emotional and practical needs.

One student might do better in their studies if they had the option to learn online on Mondays and Wednesdays when they were caring for elderly relatives or working part time. Another might feel they get more from their course when they attend all sessions in person.

Accommodating such different needs will undoubtedly take careful management in terms of staffing, optimising the use of available learning spaces and providing remote access to resources. That said, the general direction of travel for the sector is already to move away from a prescriptive and uniform university experience to a much more personalised one, proactively identifying the early signs that a student might need additional support, academically, socially or emotionally.

However, this demands wholesale change in how institutions manage student information, bringing together data from the entire university – from accommodation, university departments, libraries and support services, even extracurricular activities, where practical. If a student suddenly stops accessing recorded lectures, going to the debating society or attending social gatherings, their instructors and the student services team need to be automatically alerted. There may be no cause for concern, but an early touchpoint could make all the difference to a student struggling to cope and help ensure they get the support they need.  

When information is held centrally and flows freely and securely across departments, staff can work more efficiently and ensure students get a joined-up experience from application to graduation. There are also more opportunities for institutions to be innovative. For instance, technical advances in AI and machine learning could revolutionise the way universities support students’ well-being and academic progress if there were the institutional mechanisms in place to harness it.

In minutes, it could be possible, for instance, to identify if a student who is also an elite athlete is falling behind at certain times of the year because training commitments are putting pressure on their scheduled learning time. This could allow additional support to be put in place throughout the academic year, allowing the athlete to continue competing alongside their studies.

Universities are institutions for learning and personal growth. The time has come to rethink how students are supported through their higher education journey to achieve both.

Iain Sloan is a senior solutions consultant at Ellucian. He was formerly senior admissions officer at Oxford Brookes University.

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