A new dawn for learning analytics in UK HE

Jisc’s Martyn Harrow looks at how big data could further help transform teaching and learning in UK universities

The start of the academic year will shortly be upon us – and with it, the usual excitement and sense of new possibilities. This year, for 10 universities, it also marks the start a new journey as Jisc begins to pilot a national learning analytics service.

A very short introduction

Learning analytics involves the identification of meaningful patterns within student data sets – and then using the insights gain to inform learning and teaching. As learners interact with learning systems – withdrawing books from the library, using a virtual learning environment, or attending seminars, for example – they leave individual ‘digital fingerprints’, which can then be correlated to learning outcomes.  From this data, universities can then create metrics which gauge how engaged learners are with their studies; identify preferred personal learning styles of individual students; and even predict whether learners are likely to complete their studies and what grade they are likely to achieve. 

Jisc research shows that current use of analytics focuses on monitoring student engagement and on preventing dropout among ‘at risk’ students, as well as helping to improve the grades of students not at risk of dropping out. However, there is scope for universities to go much further.

Universities could use analytics proactively to improve the efficacy of their teaching – informing course design, student module choice or even student recruitment campaigns. In this way, the sector could gain a far richer understanding of what works in HE teaching. It would also open up the potential for individual universities to move towards a personalised model of learning, where teaching and learning support can be targeted to fit around the needs and observed learning patterns of individual students.

‘The next three to five years could see UK universities develop next-generation learning technology that will use analytics to deliver rich, individually-tailored learning anywhere in the world.’

For universities developing their online provision – whether as a supplement to face-to-face teaching, as a means of providing distance learning, or to grow their international online education offer – learning analytics provides additional advantages. The next three to five years could see UK universities develop next-generation learning technology that will use analytics to deliver rich, individually-tailored learning anywhere in the world. In fact, if the UK HE sector can master learning analytics first, our universities will have a major advantage in maintaining and gaining market share in international e-learning. Given current visa restrictions it is likely e-learning or blending learning will be the way to boost education exports.

How does the new service work?

Jisc’s learning analytics solution has two crucial parts – a data warehouse and a data processor. The data warehouse brings together input data from systems across the university – including usage data from the university library, virtual learning environment and other resources, as well as more traditional academic data such as assessment results. The data processor then compares this individual level data with current and historical data from that university, using that data to identify any students who might be disengaged as well broader trends. This data is made available to teaching staff, and on an aggregate level to university managers. Crucially, individual students will be able to access their own data via a student app.  

There are obvious sensitivities around collection and use of student data. Jisc takes this very seriously so we’ve worked with organisations including NUS to produce a code of practice which sets out the responsibilities of universities to ensure that learning analytics is carried out responsibly, appropriately and effectively. Survey data from Nottingham Trent University suggests students are “strongly positive” about analytics, with 93% of them stating they wanted to be warned if they’re at risk of failure.

Get involved 

A recent survey of university vice chancellors found 60% believed that the important innovations in student data analytics are taking place primarily overseas. None of those surveyed believed the UK leads the world in this area. If the UK university system is to maintain its competitive position in global higher education, we need to change this.

Martyn Harrow is chief executive of Jisc, the UK’s expert body for digital in education and research. To find out more about Jisc’s learning analytics work and how you can get involved visit https://bit.ly/1e2wNzg or contact customerservices@jisc.ac.uk.