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How data analytics can help schools and unis foster growth

Tableau Software's James Eiloart looks into how education institutions can use data analytics to improve their internal processes

Posted by Hannah Vickers | March 31, 2017 | Higher education

By James Eiloart, SVP EMEA, Tableau Software

It’s not only businesses that need to grow and improve internal processes: universities and colleges strive to grow and fulfil their mission of educating their communities. In order to continue this growth, it’s becoming more important than ever for universities to track and improve enrolment, graduation and retention rates, as well as other internal processes.  

What can educational institutions do to foster growth? 

The answer lies within data analytics. Although there has been a lot of hype about the benefits that data can bring to business and organisations alike, data is meaningless unless you draw insights from it and make informed decisions that drive business success. 

What’s promising is that several of today’s leading public institutions are implementing data strategies that can teach even the largest, most commercially-minded organisations a few lessons. One example is through the use of visual analytic platforms to gather important insights into student attrition, growth rates and performance. After all, it’s not all about the data; it’s what you do with it that counts. 

Effective approaches to data analytics

There are three approaches to data analytics that are making a big difference at schools and universities:

1. Predicting student wellbeing 

Whilst league tables are an important metric for assessing school performance, what they cannot measure are the more intangible elements of the school environment. For example, the ever-increasing focus on student wellbeing, particularly as today’s students report high levels of stress and mental health issues. Such factors could be taken into account using data to give parents and local authorities a more holistic view of overall performance and student retention rates.  

At Spokane School District in Washington State (US), a large school of nearly 30,000 students with a higher level of poverty than the state average, administrators wanted to see if they could explain why some students were dropping out of school early and whether they could do a better job reading the early warning signs.

By analysing their data, the school discovered a series of tipping points – changes in the student environment that tended to trigger disengagement. “We learned that transitions are critical for kids,” says Steven Gering, Chief Academic Officer. “For example, when kids transition up to the middle school… about 20% of our dropouts start showing warning signs. They start having behaviour problems or discipline problems or their test scores start dropping. At the transition to high school, about 40% of our kids start exhibiting some warning signs that we'd never seen before. Some of our data visualisations are helping catch kids fast and intervene.” 

Harnessing the power of data with visual analytics, the Spokane School District is able to develop a better understanding of what is happening in their schools and why, giving administrators the power to provide support and guidance to students when it matters most.

2. Understanding ‘spotting opportunities’ with visual analytics  

From enrolment to scholarships, visual analytics is an important tool for tracking and improving performance metrics of the school or university itself. When used appropriately, data eases this burden by allowing anyone to perform sophisticated education analysis and share key findings across the organisation.

One university leveraging visual analytics tools is Leicester-based De Montfort University. With more than 27,000 students, the university wanted to ensure a scalable analytics solution that could be used by a number of departments to replace their previous ad-hoc analysis. Initially, the Strategic Planning department at De Montfort worked to analyse data ranging from marketing campaigns to admission statistics but quickly found that the hunger for data analytics across departments grew as people – from professors to directors – saw the immediate benefit and ease-of-use that came with visualising data.  

After an extensive assessment project, the De Montfort decided to implement visual analytics software for its ease of use and ability to scale across the entire university. Since integrating these tools, teams including the finance, human resources and academic quality departments are using analytics to spot trends and see new opportunities to support its students.    

3. Encouraging data centricity throughout the organisation 

Employing a data analytics culture is the first step to creating value from data. It can seem daunting to many. In order to make informed decisions and uncover insights into areas like operations, human resources or stakeholder engagement, building a culture around data – where data is at the centre of all conversations and decisions are driven by fact rather than gut-feel – is a first and critical step.

While university administrators drive a data-centric culture across the campus, students are discovering the importance of visualising data to enrich their learning experience.  At the University of Washington, data analytics is used in multiple departments across the institution.

Our goal is a cultural change around data, where people are able to access the data quickly, ask advanced questions, explore, tell stories and derive insights - Anja Canfield-Budde, Director of Enterprise Data and Analytics, UW Information Technology

“Our goal is a cultural change around data, where people are able to access the data quickly, ask advanced questions, explore, tell stories and derive insights,” says Anja Canfield-Budde, Director of Enterprise Data and Analytics, UW Information Technology. Administrators currently assess academic data, including major enrolments, student credit hours, degrees awarded and student progress. The team is looking to add budgets, revenue and expenditures, undergraduate applications and admissions data in the near future.

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