Using data to improve the student experience

Laura Hollinshead, learning technologist for curriculum development at the University of Derby, discusses how the university uses data insights to inform transformational practice

Understanding what works

A major part of my role as learning technologist is focusing on how technology can enhance teaching and learning.

In order to fully understand the impact of these technologies in our organisation, we have been using Digital Experience Insights Surveys (DEI) at the University of Derby to reflect on practices and processes since 2016. 

Data plays an essential role in allowing us to understand what works and what doesn’t. We rely on data to inform various aspects of transformational practice, and the Student DEI Survey gives us valuable information about students’ digital experience. 

For example, from a previous survey we found that many students were experiencing issues with wifi. The survey responses gave us concrete evidence to pass on to the right people within the organisation to ensure that the issue was addressed. This kind of insight has been especially important during lockdown, as there is much less face-to-face contact with students, and many of our learners have been relying on off-campus technologies to complete their studies. 

From a previous survey we found that many students were experiencing issues with wifi. The survey responses gave us concrete evidence to pass on to the right people

We have also used data insights from DEI surveys to inform business cases for additional new technologies, such as Padlet and Poll Everywhere, which can help academic staff enhance their practice, and give students extra opportunities to engage in their learning. Including evidence regarding students’ requirements made putting together a business case for this investment much easier, and meant that we were able to spend our budget wisely, following direct insight from our learners. 

Digital skills and planning for the future

But it is not only technology insight that is supported by data. Understanding students’ digital capabilities and where they may need more support is also a huge benefit of the DEI surveys.

Before the current pandemic and its impact on digital learning, we found that there were areas of the curriculum where students required greater opportunities to collaborate online as part of their course. We know that online collaboration is an important skill for employment and beyond, and so we were able to use these findings to start conversations with both management and academic staff about where and how we could improve access and engagement. 

We’re hoping to use the data to push forward cultural change within the university, taking on what has worked and leaving behind what hasn’t

This year’s data, of course, will reveal a very different landscape. Unlike other years, when the majority of students’ learning took place face-to-face with a minority of digital delivery, over the past 12 months students have been engaging with digital learning more than ever, so this survey will provide a deeper insight into the learning experience.

We’re hoping to use the data to push forward cultural change within the university, taking on what has worked and leaving behind what hasn’t. We can then embed some of these changes into the way the curriculum is delivered, and how we use technology, making sure our students are developing the right digital capabilities to help them succeed in the future. 

A good example of this is the virtual learning environment (VLE).

For years, the full potential of the VLE was not unlocked, with usage sometimes limited to storing documents or accessing lecture recordings. But this year the dynamic has completely changed, and we’re expecting the data to show VLE use in a new light, based on the large-scale programme of training we have provided for staff and how interactions with digital technology are now so different for students. Specifically, we’re hoping to gain insight into how the VLE is being used for blended learning, and what further enhancements can be made. 

This highlights one of the biggest benefits of data – that it not only tells us about how things are working now, but can help us plan for what’s possible in the future, and identify what potential barriers there might be.

As the university prepares for the future of blended learning, the available data can help inform what systems are continued, and which are replaced or altered. 

Supporting and celebrating staff

Conversations about data and the opportunity for data-driven decisions are also becoming much more mainstream within the university sector.

The cautionary tale, though, is to acknowledge the need for careful interpretation of the data, and understanding the implications of changes to learning and teaching practice. For instance, there are some staff who may feel pressurised to have to change their practice based on this data, when they already have heavy workloads. What we’re trying to do instead, at Derby, is to use data insights to understand how we can better support people.

The data we have gathered over recent years gave us the ability to develop a ‘Best of Blends’ programme of staff development for academics, tailored to their specific needs. This helps them develop the best possible digital experience for our students as part of our response to the pandemic. We also plan to roll out the Staff Digital Experience Insight Survey later this month to support these efforts. This will help us continue to explore how we can provide better services and support for academics to lighten their workloads or mitigate issues that are arising through unfit systems and processes.

Data is, of course, influential in our progress as an organisation but, crucially, it also reveals to us the amazing things that staff across the university have been able to achieve in such a short space of time. And that’s surely something worth celebrating. 

To hear Laura discuss how data is shaping students’ remote learning experiences, book your place at the Data Matters conference, running online from 26-27 January 2021. Learn more about harnessing the power of your data at 

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