Making the most of data is everybody's responsibility

A recent report shows the potential for learning analytics in higher education, says Jisc chief executive Paul Feldman

February 9, 2016
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In amongst all the policy briefings, papers and calls-for-submissions in the first few weeks of 2016, you’d be excused if you somehow missed the Higher Education Commission report From Bricks to Clicks: the Potential of Data and Analytics in Higher Education.

But, I have to say, it makes for fascinating reading. The report lays bare the enormous opportunities available to higher education organisations in leveraging data to respond to the more student (and customer) focused model we’re moving towards. In doing so it sets out its recommendations to HE professionals, universities and sector bodies and agencies for achieving better use of data to support strategic goals and provide huge benefits for students.

This point about sector ownership is important. Aside from one recommendation to government (asking them not to exclude universities from the Freedom of Information Act), the report is levelled firmly at the sector.

So, if the onus is on the sector leading the charge, the next question is: how do we do this? 

A learning analytics system for all

A major recommendation of the report that spans multiple pointers is learning analytics, even going as far to say that all universities should consider introducing a learning analytics system.

Now, this is something I’m extremely excited about. Every time a student interacts with their university – be that going to the library, logging into their virtual learning environment or submitting assessments online – they leave behind a digital footprint.

Learning analytics is the process and heuristic of using this data to improve learning and teaching. It allows students and practitioners to monitor progresses, including any changes or problems that might put them at risk of dropping out.

More than this, it gives practitioners insights into how and when an individual likes to learn, allowing them to tailor and personalise their approach to further support retention, satisfaction and attainment. Adopting such a system UK-wide not only optimises the experience we can offer to students, it makes our country more competitive and attractive to the global market. 

On this front, Jisc is working with 50 universities to set up a national learning analytics service – the first of its type in the world – to support every organisation to harness its power. This service is built on an ecosystem of bought-in learning analytics technologies, linked by a set of common standards.

It is then backed up by some Jisc-developed capabilities, such as a student app that allows the learner to ‘own’ their progress, and a national database, enabling cross-institutional comparisons. So, if you have some learning analytics at your university already, by adopting the standards you should easily be able to join the national service.

I believe that implementing this at a national level will bring even more benefits, including creating a powerful dataset that helps the sector see what works well in HE teaching and research, and what doesn’t. Its value is in also helping to gain a better understanding of student pathways, from early education into employment, especially for those from non-traditional backgrounds in line with government’s mandate for widening participation.

Importantly, a national service also takes the pressure off each university to develop their own, which in turn creates savings and efficiencies. Of course, we’ll need the sector to drive it – and again, this comes back to the report’s recommendations – but giving them the tools to do so is an important first step in grabbing hold of this opportunity.

Strong digital leaders

Capitalising on data opportunities calls for advocacy at all levels. We’ve moved far beyond digital being confined to the IT department – it needs to start at the top of an institution.

I’m sure you’ll have examples yourself of best practice that show how the sector is already doing a lot of what is recommended. But “best practice” is exactly that: an ideal. When it comes to using data effectively we need this practice to become part of the everyday at every organisation.

Nottingham Trent University and The Open University are both featured as case studies where senior leaders have put digital at the centre of their strategies. It’s vital that others do the same.

To achieve this shift the report recognises a need for digitally-aware and data-capable leaders. This means university vice-chancellors and senior leaders who understand the potential of digital and data and build their strategies around it; to grasp hold of the opportunities across all areas of their institution, including teaching and research. Naturally, they also need to consider the understanding and skills of their practitioners and staff, so that they are equipped to perform their roles in an increasingly data-driven environment.

A sector-wide strategy

Finally, there’s recognition that if we as a sector are to reap the benefits of the above, there needs to be a sector-wide strategy for excellent and innovative data management, which supports and enables sharing and collaboration between institutions.

I agree with alacrity on this recommendation. With the Higher Education Statistics Agency and Universities UK, we’re pleased to be working together to deliver this goal, leading the efforts to improve data capability and management procedures and opportunities so that our sector doesn’t miss out.

It’s clear from the report that data is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone’s asset. I’d advise all practitioners, leaders, organisations and sector bodies to grasp the opportunities in front of them.

Paul Feldman is chief executive of Jisc.

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