What can we learn from left-out students?

As Jisc launches a new code of practice for wellbeing and mental health analytics, Julia Taylor, subject specialist in strategy, asks how colleges and universities can personalise data to support students

What use is student data? Universities and colleges gather learner information to help improve academic outcomes, contribute to a better experience, increase student satisfaction and improve wellbeing. But there are voices we don’t often hear.

Falling through the cracks

Those who get left behind tend to be learners that don’t have the time or digital and financial resources to participate; those who don’t complete their courses due to lack of support; those who don’t have the confidence to complain; and, of course, those who start with lower expectations. But these learners’ data has the potential to evidence a wider range of experiences – good and bad.

As we prepare to ‘reopen’ education to our increasingly diverse learner population after the COVID-19 college closures, we should try to learn from the experiences of those who fell through the cracks.

Many of these faced additional challenges when life abruptly closed down. Anxious learners faced disrupted routines. Underrepresented groups haven’t been able to integrate. Learners with support needs have suffered frustration and isolation. Economically disadvantaged learners have been excluded by limited access to devices, the internet or suitable study spaces. Some international, care-experienced and estranged learners have been left coping with unexpected financial, medical or emotional demands, often with no family to fall back on and no home beyond their student accommodation to ‘return’ to.

Learning from data

Because of this, wellbeing and mental health will continue to be a concern across the sector. Overseen by mental health professionals, it’s one area where personal data might give valuable insight into shaping provision. But this is not without risk. Jisc has been working with the ICO on a code of practice for wellbeing and mental health analytics to ensure that valuable, sensitive learner data is used safely and fairly. It could play a valuable role in taking away unnecessary barriers and building the best experience for all learners.

“Using wellbeing data to inform and underpin curriculum design will support universities’ and colleges’ efforts to adopt inclusive models and create a culture that better supports mental health”

Accessibility matters

After the break enforced by COVID-19, induction back into education will be more critical than ever. Online pre-induction tasters and ‘buddy’ systems can prepare learners for new ways of studying and help build a sense of belonging. Post-lockdown, communicating, collaborating and connecting effectively with learners online will be crucial.

Wellbeing at the heart of curriculum design

Some underrepresented groups, such as LGBT+, are over-represented in mental health statistics, but to understand the challenges individuals face, detail is all; what are learners actually saying about the additional stresses of their lives? Using wellbeing data to inform and underpin curriculum design will support universities and colleges’ efforts to adopt inclusive models and create a culture that better supports mental health.

The right skills for uncertain times

Although addressing all the additional economic, cultural and social barriers many learners face isn’t possible here, we do need to know if the digital shift can help reverse the stubborn retention, attainment and satisfaction gaps for some groups.

With an unpredictable employment situation ahead, we might expect more learners to stay in education or seek training. Quality and equity across education provision has never been as vital. Employers and learners will need to know they are getting the right skills for uncertain times to ensure they’re not wasting their efforts.

During lockdown we’ve seen how technology can connect isolated individuals and build strong communities. Asynchronous delivery requires the kind of flexible curriculum that could include more learners. Now is the time to encourage personalised learning experiences and independent study, allowing for formative assessment and self-paced learning.

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