Big data in education: transforming teaching and learning

Daniel Painter, lead digital transformation consultant at Cognifide, discusses the impact of data across the education sector

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on educational systems worldwide, with UNESCO estimating that, as of mid-April, over 1.725 billion learners had been affected by school or university closures. That’s 99.9% of the world’s student population.

To cushion the effects of the pandemic, the education sector has been forced to radically transform overnight. It’s accelerated the need to embrace technology and data, which is now being used to shape the student experience – from the way education is delivered to how different learning styles are catered for remotely. For higher education institutions, it’s critical they harness the power of technology and data to provide a seamless learning experience to justify their fees.

But what technology can institutions use to rapidly realise the potential of online education? One key component is leveraging the power of big data, which offers unprecedented opportunities for educators to communicate with and reach students in new ways.

Student recruitment

Recent reports on predicted university enrolment for the next academic year point to an even more challenging landscape for student recruitment. In addition to existing challenges surrounding high fees, universities will now have to grapple with COVID uncertainty – especially regarding international student recruitment.

It’s therefore important that institutions provide the best possible experience for prospective students that are still considering enrolment, as this will be a key factor in their decision-making process. Although many student application processes are currently on hold, academic institutions can gain an edge by prioritising adding intelligence and data-driven elements to the recruitment drive when it picks back up.

This includes arming themselves with the capability to personalise content. That may be something as simple as using search terms or looking at previous onsite behaviour to surface the most important elements for attracting an individual on their chosen channel. This kind of customisation can form a strong connection with a prospective new student and make the difference between them enrolling or being a near miss.

Personalisation should focus on the utility of the application process, making it a breeze to complete or potentially highlighting institutional differentiators for different students. That could be incredible sports facilities, or one-to-one English support for those with a different native language.

Improving the education experience

COVID has meant that the education experience is changing drastically, with all institutions having to get to grips with rolling out e-learning – and these new processes are still being fully explored and refined.

During an individual student’s entire academic career, they already generate an extensive and complex data trail and this trend is set to continue as digital learning grows. If this wealth of data can be harnessed by teaching professionals, the way education is delivered in the future will be completely transformed.

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Student performance is still largely measured through exams and assignments. But to learn more about how an individual is really faring, this information can be combined with more contextualised data, such as attendance or punctuality, response to different teaching styles and areas of the syllabus they’re struggling with. Bringing these data sources together creates a far bigger picture about how a student best learns and performs and their educational experience can be tailored accordingly.

When this information is used across departments, education providers have the power to tailor and stage interventions focused on the needs of students and identify potential issues. This could also be hugely helpful in identifying wider individual circumstances, such as their life outside of studying – including mental health.

With the help of big data, personalised programmes for each individual student can be created. Blended learning – a combination of online and offline learning – may be key in the future to creating customised programmes for pupils, giving them the opportunity to learn at their own pace, while still having ‘offline’ access to teachers.

Providing education in a way that best suits individuals is key to improving results. It’s also a big factor in reducing dropout rates and improving overall attendance. Predictive analytics based on this data would enable teaching professionals to identify students who are struggling more quickly and allow for intervention sooner. This information could also be used to help students select courses and options they will excel in – further reducing the likelihood of dropouts.

Creating a more efficient teaching environment

There’s no escaping the fact that teachers are time poor, so it’s critical that technology and data are used in a way that creates efficiencies and improves teaching delivery, rather than adding a burden to an already stretched schedule. Minimal engagement should be needed for them to act on key insights.

To use data effectively and successfully, educational institutions could again learn from the business world. Appointing a data champion to help work on improving collaboration with the IT department is a good starting point. In addition, an analyst skillset is needed to bring the insights distilled from the various platforms to life and present it back to educators in a digestible and impactful way.

And just as businesses are looking to technology to join the dots between data sources, the adoption of Management Information Systems (MIS) is key to data being used in the right way, rather than just collected.

Technology adoption is key to success in these uncertain times; especially when rolled out quickly due to necessity, comprehensive and regular training sessions on how to use new systems will help get students, educators and management on board, clearly highlighting the benefits of the data and information that is held. Easily accessible training videos, online support and monthly clinics are all simple ways to ensure data and MIS provide education institutions with what they need to shape learning processes in the face of the ‘new normal’.


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