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Advances in HE data should be on "fast forward" -- not "pause"

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Big, and not a little frustrating, news in HE this week. The HESA Data Futures programme has been paused. Is this a postponement or a cancellation? Although the programme update suggests the beta will continue, no date for the first live data transfer has been given.

Similarly, last week, we learned that Brexit (of any flavour) is also at risk. Again, is this a postponement or a cancellation?  At the time of writing all I can say is ‘who knows?’

Both these issues are beautifully summed up by Alison Pope’s tweet, in which she points out how changes to the Data Futures and Brexit delivery timeframe “underlines how hard large scale transformational change is and how easily overtaken by events.”

Working for an HE software vendor, I am, of course interested in Data Futures, and how HEIs use data and technology. Last week, I visited a modern university to look at how they use data. As well as being struck by the energy of everyone I met, and the fresh, light, bright feel of the new buildings and modern learning spaces full of technology, I was deeply impressed by the vision  that underpins how this university is seeking to use data to focus on delivering the best possible experience and outcomes for its students. 

During my visit we discussed the use of data by leadership, academics and students themselves. We looked at information dashboards to monitor the institution’s health in relation to student experience, progress, admission numbers and likely TEF and NSS grading amongst other things. All of this was set against a backdrop of digital transformation of infrastructure, process automation and use of machine learning in a mobile, cloud, ‘big data’ enabled environment.

So far, so good. Lots of universities are doing this aren’t they? The answer is ‘yes’, and there are eight great examples in case studies provided in a Good Practice Briefing from HEi-know.

However, what made the visit more interesting was that I had read, the week before, a really interesting article in the New Statesman on the use of data in HE. In it, HE data is described as ‘gold dust’, with real potential to impact outcomes by having a much better understanding of the student body. This, of course, Is what it is driving the behaviours and strategies I witnessed above.

However, at its heart, the piece also presents a dilemma drawing out the “fine line between smart technology and surveillance.”

The university I visited was interested in tracking a student’s attendance, access to the VLE, library and the IT network and so on, and cross referencing this with other data points on ‘student engagement’ recorded on their accommodation, finance, and student information systems. By pooling data from these sources and using the data science of predictive analytics, they hope to be able to enhance the student experiences, spot early withdrawal risks, identify students on ‘unsuitable’ courses and intervene early in where a student’s wellbeing may be at risk.

And it is this latter reason that I think wins the technology versus intrusion argument. The New Statesman article referred to the tragic story of Bristol University student, Ben Murray, who took his own life just over a year ago. Since then, Ben’s father has met with Jisc to help them consider how using their developing Intelligent Campus solution, which will bring various data points together might help prevent such tragedies by sounding an early warning based on patterns of student engagement data that could signal a risk to personal well-being.

Just last week a major new report, based on the results of over 37,500 students from 140 universities revealed some startling statistics on student mental health, including that more than one-fifth of the student population have a current mental health diagnosis.

It’s pleasing to hear Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer at Jisc, make the point that “meaningful support comes from human beings, but technology, such as learning analytics,?can help to flag potential issues early on.”

So, I for one, hope that the Jisc learning analytics and smart campus initiatives continue to develop and do not suffer the same fate as HESA Data Futures and Brexit. And, back to Alison Pope’s tweet – getting meaningful interventions driven by learning analytics right will be hard, involving large scale transformational change. It could easily be overtaken by events. 

But let’s hope not.

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