Big data analysis

Analysis of big data by universities and colleges can really pay off, but communication is key, writes Simon Fry

Supermarkets’ loyalty cards, while ostensibly rewarding their customers with offers, also provide invaluable data with which the company can understand the needs and preferences of those walking through their doors. The same can be said for universities, which can build up a very useful, and potentially lucrative, picture of their students’ working habits and performances through big data analysis. Such analysis can only increase, as learning resources move from paper books on shelves to digital forms.

Universities are becoming far more sophisticated in their use of data. What were ‘data silos’ on Excel spreadsheets in different, non-conversing departments, are evolving and being transformed into institutionally triangulated and queried data stores.

The mission to be more impactful in teaching, research and knowledge-exchange while better supporting student success, is now key.

Big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence in education is not an arms race, but a smarts race, according to Yaz el Hakim, director of learning experience at Kortext. The company is also encouraging the sector to reflect on the data being created and used. A key data set for learning at university is generally being missed in HE; as millions of textbooks are being digitised, that data set is ‘reading’ analytics. By making core textbooks available to each student digitally, universities can improve the learning experience for students (both on campus and online), who are hampered by missing or unavailable physical copies in the library. Opening up reading analytics for universities is also desirable given the relationship of reading analytics with outcomes and grades. Research has repeatedly shown a strong correlation and relationship between reading digital learning content and academic performance, as opposed to, for example, VLE usage data, where the relationship has been weak (see graphs).

El Hakim says: “Big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence will be utilised in almost all software we will use in five years’ time. Everything we use, or at least the most popular software, services and sites, will react to us individually based on our use of the software and/or our engagement with the content, goods or activities available. Providing the highest efficiencies and greatest personalisation for a user’s experience will become even more essential than it is today.”

[Edtech’s] power to transform the life of an institution and the quality of education within it is compelling – Murray Morrison

The race is on for universities and businesses alike to have the most personalised and smart software and systems, in order to scale their number of users rapidly, while creating the best user experiences possible.
The business of running institutions and teaching has, in a way, always been an exercise in big data. Since the days of slate tablets, teachers have measured students’ understanding and adjusted accordingly to raise attainment. The job of the teacher has been in part to deliver content, and in part to assess their own effectiveness, and it’s never been a wholly satisfactory situation. Collecting data and processing it is time-consuming, energy-sapping and frequently fraught with errors.

“What edtech offers is really nothing new beyond the ability to outsource tasks and improve efficiency and accuracy,” says Murray Morrison, founder of Tassomai. “But its power to transform the life of an institution and the quality of education within it is compelling. When teachers are able to use technology to work out which students need more attention and support, when the time they would have spent deriving this insight is no longer a cost to them, they can spend more of their time doing what technology cannot do – inspiring young people and changing lives. In short, good edtech has the power to make teaching a happier profession.”
Morrison points to the schools system, where disproportionate amounts of the budget are eaten-up by the cost of staffing, cover, recruitment and retention. “A relatively small investment into technology platforms that have a real impact on the quality of the staff’s life not only improves the teaching and learning in the school, but also vastly mitigates the cost of teacher burnout and staff turnover,” he says. The higher education sector may not feel such costs as acutely, but as financial pressures mount, it’s certainly an area for consideration.

Higher on universities’ lists of priorities is student recruitment, for which data is also important. Universities are facing numerous challenges with high drop-out rates and intense competition to increase student registrations from a shrinking supply with EU applications alone shrinking by 7% prior to Brexit. Student expectations are also now higher than ever before. Part of the problem is universities don’t really know who their target audience is. Young adults aged 18 to 21 may continue to make up the majority of the intake, but even this is a diverse and complex mix. International students from a wide range of countries all have to be catered for, and what about mature students, part-time students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Simon Chave, Crimson’s chief information officer, says: “The university website, recruitment, UCAS and the admissions process represent the first opportunity to impress prospective students, and it’s so important not to spoil it by showing different information across touchpoints. As the higher education sector gets ever more competitive, a streamlined marketing, recruitment, admissions, registration and student support process is fast becoming the new norm. Data silos and disconnected colleague processes are no longer acceptable and true accountability is only established by measuring facts.

Data drives the measurement process and only by intelligently connecting internal people and publishing agreed dashboards to staff will excellence be achieved.”

Crimson offers a 360-degree view of universities aimed at driving transformative behaviour. Its data insights practice is designed to measure value using Microsoft’s world-leading cloud platform which features reporting and system integration technologies, with its Microsoft Dynamics 365 (CRM) also able to manage complex relationships across all popular communication channels.

As competition for pupils and students continues to increase, the universities and colleges most likely to flourish will be those best understanding their potential intake and consequently meeting – or exceeding – their expectations. This will be done most effectively and lucratively through identifying the changing nature of learning to deliver education supported by facts. Big data’s future can only get bigger…

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