Thinking holistically about data matters

Yesterday we (myself and one of our students, Alex Norris) attended the Data Matters conference and presented a case study on  running our 2018 Student Digital Experience tracker survey.

Marieke Guy and Alex Norris just before giving their presentation

Marieke Guy and Alex Norris just before giving their presentation

The conference was jointly organised by Jisc, QAA and HESA and held at etc venues next to the museum of London. It is the second year for the event which brings together data practitioners, quality professionals and digital service specialists to discuss topical issues around data and its use in higher education.

Our presentation was part of session looking at the Jisc pilot work on better understanding the student digital experience. Ruth Drysdale and Mark Langer-Crame gave an overview of the survey and also shared some data from their version of the survey aimed at staff. There were some interesting variations, for example staff want to use more digital tech in the classroom while on the whole students are happy with the level of technology they already have. Note that we hope to run a survey exploring the digital experience of staff over the forthcoming year.

Marieke and Alex presenting

Marieke and Alex presenting – photo courtesy of Ruth Drysdale

Our case study was followed by one from Marc Griffiths, Head of Digitally Enhanced Learning, London South Bank University. Marc planned to use insights from the survey to inform South Bank’s digitally enhanced strategy. In reality the survey results have made South Bank question quite a lot of their previous assumptions, for example their mobile first approach given that a quarter of their students don’t own smart phones.

The first key note of the day was presented by Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor and CEO of University of Northampton. Nick gave an incredibly open account of the data they collect, from social media, websites accessed (the highest hits definitely aren’t learning and teaching related – think Facebook, youtube, QQ, BitTorrent) and VLE usage. Considering this data has allowed the university to act fast in order to improve the student experience. Nick related his tale of the recent ‘toastergate’ fiasco in which students had toasters that didn’t work or only allowed two slices of bread. Northampton’s aim is to pull together data from Salto, their network use, VLE, usage, security incidents, learning analytics, timetabling,  heat maps etc. into one dashboard using Power BI. This in turn will support better decision making. Nick’s talk was followed by a panel discussion on Counting what’s measured or measuring what counts: questioning education metrics. There were contributions from Professor Helen Higson, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Aston University ; Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute ; Charlie Kleboe-Rogers, Vice-President of Academia, Dundee University Students’ Association  and Andy Youell, previously from HESA but now a Writer, speaker, strategic advisor, Andy Youell Associates Ltd. The biggest tweetable points came from Nick Hillman who suggested that we consider creating more metrics and league tables as this will (to some extent) make them become less meaningful . Unis can then pick that data that they want to be framed by. He also suggested that we start asking applicants and staff more, rather than just focusing on students.

David Boyle's data lessons

David Boyle’s data lessons

The post-lunch keynote’s enticing title was Analytics and the Student Experience: Lessons from Politicians, Pop Stars and Power Brands  presented by David Boyle, Customer Insights Director, Harrods. David’s talk considered the data answers to why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 US presidential election campaign. His answer explored four key lessons for the campaign team:

  • Cluster always – clustering tools like Affinio can offer major insights
  • Multiple sources & data science – Don’t let any one data set be separate from the other areas, think holistically. You need behavioural data, research data , data science and story telling to find and share the insights. Work on your ocular regression and find the data patterns. If you are making big decisions make all these people and all these data sets work together. You can ever put all the sources into a data soup and come out with one indicator.
  • Augmented experts – combine human skills with the ability of computer systems.
  • Insights – Load data into the head of decision makers and train them to use the data

I also attended two more break out sessions. One on Understanding your student body through innovative data analysis and the new “Career Explorer” service presented by James Jackson, Head of System Development and Integration, Bishop Grosseteste University and members of the UCAS team. The end result could end up being be a nice little app for students allowing them to see the potential universities for a chosen subject and the likelihood of an offer given their grades or predicted grades.

And a final one on the Intelligent Campus from James Clay of Jisc. You could classify campuses in to: dumb campuses (that know very little, smart campuses (that collect data) and intelligent campuses (that use that data to make decisions). So think better room usage (letting students know when the library is ridiculously busy and suggesting a better time to visit), better service provision (why do cleaners clean rooms that haven’t been used?), clever alerts (you are walking past the library why not collect that book you’ve reserved). and more. Some of this work could scale up to the the intelligent estate, or focus in to the Intelligent timetable, intelligent learning spaces or intelligent library. The Jisc Intelligent campus project has been working on a list of data sources, use cases and general guidance. There is also the very useful code of practice developed for learning analytics projects.

James Clay outlines the intelligent campus

James Clay outlines the intelligent campus

It was an interesting day. The biggest take away was the need to adopt a holistic view and ensure that you are using several data sets, including qualitative data. HE really needs people who can take on this overseeing role and provide narratives on data in order to make it meaningful for decision-makers. As Andy Youell put it: “Data soup is better than the blancmange of opinion“.

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