Report presses universities on learning analytics

Policy Connect think tank calls for higher education bodies to harness 'fluid data' from new technologies

Higher education institutions need to improve their data management to take advantage of the future potential of 'learning analytics', according to a report from the cross-party think tank Policy Connect.

Titled From Bricks to Clicks: the potential of data analytics in Higher Education, it says universities need guidance on better data management and support to help their staff and systems capitalise on all the benefits that can derive from good data analytics.

Lord_NortonLord Philip Norton (pictured), who led the inquiry that produced the report, said: “The Higher Education Commission (a group within Policy Connect) saw an opportunity to investigate the state of data affairs in HE and embarked on a 10 month inquiry last year.

“Covering the effect that data and analytics can have for university students, higher education institutions and the HE sector as a whole, we felt that we should focus specifically on the student experience angle as this hasn’t been looked into before.”

The report throws a spotlight on learning analytics, which makes use of the 'fluid data' that comes from students' digital interactions such as from swipe cards, logging in to virtual learning environments and downloading online journals.

This could be used to provide insights on student behaviour and more targeted and personalised support. Among the benefits would be increasing retention, providing better feedback to students, capturing attendance data and improving teaching and learning.

Lagging behind

It is still in its relative infancy, but Policy Connect says that universities are in danger of failing to take advantage because they are lagging behind other sectors in their data management.

While they collect large volumes of 'static data' – such as student records, staff, financial and estate data – there is a lot of duplication and most do not effective management systems in place. Also, few are yet making serious efforts to collect fluid data.

The volume of this will increase as new technologies are used more in higher education, such as virtual and augmented reality, wearable devices and virtual learning environments. But universities are currently ill prepared to use the data for analytics.

In response, the report makes a series of recommendations for higher education bodies and the Government. They include:

  • The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Jisc and Universities UK should work on a sector-wide strategy for data management.
  • HESA should take responsibility for rationalising the data collection process.
  • All higher education institutions should look at adopting a learning analytics system.
  • There should be clear ethical policies and codes of practice on the use of data, including informed consent from students.
  • Institutions should review their approaches to data management.
  • Teaching and administrative staff should be trained to improve their digital capability and data management skills.

A spokesperson for the thinktank said that it will stage an official launch of the report on Tuesday 26 January and is aiming to raise awareness of its findings among policy-makers in the different institutions.