Harnessing tech to meet HE’s biggest challenges

Jisc’s chief executive previews some of the ways in which it is helping universities make effective use of learning and management data

By Martyn Harrow 

One thing that really struck a chord with me at Jisc’s Digital Festival in early March was a new impetus in the way that university leaders are looking to digital technologies to help them meet some of their biggest challenges. Sessions on transforming learning were hugely popular and those on improving business efficiency were similarly packed to the rafters. There is growing recognition that technology is much more than just another back-office enabler; it is becoming part of their strategic toolkit, playing an essential role in transforming institutions, improving the outcomes that matter and contributing to efficiencies. 

At Jisc, we take the lead for UK universities, colleges and skills providers on developing shared technology solutions to key business issues. We’re one of the UK’s most successful shared services, doing many of the big things once so that individual institutions don’t have to do them a hundred times over. Working closely with universities, we help them maximise the benefits from digital technology for their own research, teaching and learning, student experience, institutional management and competitive positioning. 

Finding new, better ways of working has never been as important to universities as it is right now, faced with uncertainties over policy, drives to reduce costs and increased overseas competition. To overcome these challenges, universities need to raise their level of ambition when it comes to technology. We’re working on a couple of developments that will help them do just that. 

Better business intelligence

In the face of such uncertainty, universities need good, solid business intelligence. Getting the data needed for informed institutional planning has often been time consuming and expensive. So, we’re working with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on developing new tools to provide university leaders and managers with better, more sophisticated data to support decision-making. 

Our business intelligence project is developing a shared business intelligence service that builds on the existing Higher Education Information Database for Institutions (HEIDI), replacing its management information service with improved data content. This will offer new layers of analysis and visualisation developed with the sector’s professional bodies.  The new services, Heidi-Plus and Heidi-Lab, will allow institutions to link HESA data with their own datasets, support cost benchmarking and also provide a platform for institutions to collaborate on the development of new methods of analysis. Heidi-Plus will be launched this autumn. 

Learning analytics

We have also started work to help universities make better use of the mass of data they collect about student learning activities. Effective analysis will enable them to meet students’ needs more effectively, identify and head off problems at an early stage and help to boost student satisfaction, retention and attainment. It’s a win-win for students and universities. 

So, we’re working with partners from across the sector to develop tools and resources to support effective learning analytics. Together, we are developing a set of basic learning analytics tools that will be available free of charge to universities and colleges in the UK, with additional functionality available for purchase if required. We are developing additional resources that will enable university staff to track and record interventions with students and also engaging with students themselves to develop an app that enables and encourages students to contribute to the learning analytics process. These tools will be available towards the end of 2015. 

With these twin sources of data – business intelligence and learning analytics – institutions will be able to focus their resources where they will bring most benefit, and invest wisely in improvements to existing systems. 

It is Jisc’s role to explore the issues that face the tertiary education sector, to lead and work with institutions UK-wide on the development of digital solutions, and scale them up to provide flexible, cost-effective solutions for the whole sector.  But we know that it is people who hold the key to unlocking the potential of digital technologies. So if you’d like help with using digital solutions to get your university working more efficiently, please speak to our customer services team

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