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Big data can boost student experience

Ruth Drysdale, eLearning programme manager at Jisc, explores data analytics as a great way to enhance the student experience

Posted by Hannah Oakman | February 03, 2014 | Higher education

In 2010, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt noted that the amount of data collected since the dawn of humanity until 2003 was the equivalent to the volume we now produce every two days. 'Big data' is a term that has grown in use and while there can be negative connotations of harvesting people's data, Ruth Drysdale, an eLearning programme manager at Jisc, explains that data analytics is an effective way for universities to enhance student experience.

The wealth of activity data that higher education institutions can collect is vast. The methods of harvesting data are also becoming more sophisticated, which is essential when it comes to providing an accurate picture on student engagement, which can influence retention.

Much the way that retailers collect data to anticipate customer preference, universities are increasingly able to analyse students' behaviour in order to enrich the student experience.

In most aspects of university life, students leave a digital footprint, whether they are swiping in at the library, applying for financial aid, borrowing books or logging-on to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

The data record this activity leaves behind provides universities with several touch-points in which they can anticipate a student's chance of success within an institution. Also it presents academics with the opportunity to intervene early and offer more tailored support to students that they feel are at risk of not completing their course.

One US university has created a traffic light system, which is gaining popularity in the UK, to improve student academic experience and thus retention. The system is based on activity data of previous students which is compared with behaviour of current students to give a clearer prediction of how certain behaviour will impact on their academic success. For example, if a student profile is flagging up as amber, the university can quickly engage with that individual and offer them personalised support to get them back on track.

In an environment where students may have a lower number of contact hours, where they are expected to undertake a significant amount of independent learning, universities need to ensure students remain engaged in the learning process. Advances in digital technologies and communication are supporting universities in offering a fulfilling university experience, in line with discerning students’ expectations.

Some universities are enabling students, as well as academics, to recommend further reading, thus giving them more of a stake in their own learning experience. Effective relationship management between institutions and students needs to begin before the application process. Prospective students are conducting more desk research before attending open days; therefore universities need to demonstrate the best student experience to attract applicants. In response, more universities are creating videos, podcasts and virtual tours of the campus, as well as monitoring opinion on social media sites.

Against a backdrop of £9,000 tuition fees, universities are in a position where they need to demonstrate value for money to students and offer an enhanced and more personalised student experience. Data activity is making a real difference in this area.

One university that has been particularly effective in harvesting student activity data is Leeds Metropolitan. Through its Jisc project, Student Tracking and Retention (Next Generation) or STAR-Track:NG, the University uses data in existing institutional systems, combined with demographic information and presents it in a single portal application.

The purpose is to improve student support services by revealing new information, providing students, tutors and student support officers with a broader picture of student engagement with the University on an academic and social level. Today's students have high expectations due to an increasing number of their daily interactions being personalised; they expect the same from their university experience. Data activity provides unique insight into student engagement allowing institutions to proactively manage retention and the support they offer students.

For more information on exploiting data activity, visit the Jisc Digital Festival – www.jisc.ac.uk/events/jisc-digital-festival-2014-11-mar-2014

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