Solutionpath’s Rachel Maxwell discusses the importance of knowing your strategic priorities when it comes to enhancing the use of student data…
When thinking about digital solutions, it is important to know the problem for which the ‘solution’ is being deployed. In the context of engagement analytics, the reasons why more institutions are seeking to develop a data-informed approach to supporting student success can be defined holistically as a response to the regulatory requirement from the Office for Students (OfS) contained in condition B3, namely for a provider to ‘deliver successful outcomes for all its students’. Unpick that requirement and myriad strands and reasons for enhancing the use of data to understand how students engage with their academic studies begin to emerge.
Strategic priorities should inform the design and development of your analytics platform
Determining, defining, articulating and successfully communicating the strategic priorities that underpin the deployment of engagement analytics is critical to success. This matters, because once you enter the project phase of an analytics deployment, those strategic priorities should inform the design and development of your analytics platform. Developing the technical solution in tandem with the wider piece of work around business transformation – typically part of a wider project on digital transformation – helps to deliver a technology-enabled solution to a wider business need that is truly integrated, workable in practice and that delivers against those strategic objectives outlined at the start.
Why should universities deploy engagement analytics?
Retention is possibly still the most immediate and oft-cited reason why universities begin to explore how better to use student engagement data to support the student experience and secure successful student outcomes. There are three main reasons why an institution’s relationship with engagement data starts with retention.
Firstly, it is a tangible means by which an institution can justify the initial outlay – the potential return on investment argument. Secondly, to successfully retain students, they need to be supported to work through issues that are impacting engagement with their studies. Which in turn, thirdly, makes adoption of a learning analytics solution easier to understand and position internally – largely as enhancing the student learning experience and supporting successful student outcomes are arguments that are easy to identify with.
Other reasons for deploying engagement analytics have emerged in recent years; strands of the same successful outcomes thread, made visible in national policy initiatives like access and participation, the Teaching Excellence Framework or UKVI Student Route requirements. Some of these use cases may be the explicit strategic reason for deploying analytics, others may emerge over time as the benefits of using and making engagement data visible to staff and students in this way, are recognised and realised.
Supporting student outreach
Sadly, reports of student suicide, loneliness or poor mental health are prevalent across the media. Student Minds, the UKs student mental health charity, partnered with other higher education bodies, and thousands of staff and students to create the University Mental Health Charter. The Charter provides both a principle-driven framework to help ensure student mental health is a university-wide priority, and a programme that allows universities to work together to share best practice and create cultural change.
Analytics can help to indicate when an outreach conversation with a student who has started to disengage from their studies might be beneficial which in turn, could lead to health and wellbeing issues being identified early – before a crisis occurs that could potentially lead to withdrawal. The university can then help the student to access appropriate and timely professional support.
Supporting international student success is another factor driving institutions to have a better understanding of engagement data at the individual level. Institutions that are sponsors of international students under the UKVI Student Route framework are required to show how international students are engaging with their studies.
Helping to join the institutional dots
Whatever the strategic reason underpinning a university’s use of engagement data, this is ultimately a project around business-change. It is for this reason that the introduction of analytics is, as I said at the start, a technology-enabled solution, rather than a technology solution. Given that the OfS regulatory framework focuses on successful outcomes for all students, it makes sense to start with that end goal in mind: how to achieve those successful outcomes?
The aim of many university students is to achieve a degree-level qualification in their chosen subject area with the view to this enhancing their post-graduation employment prospects, their career and life opportunities and, of course, their income. When issues arise that could impact the probability of this happening, university support structures kick in to help the student overcome those barriers to engagement with a view to getting them to re-engage with their studies and stay on track to achieve those successful outcomes.
The data within an analytics platform and the information about student engagement at the individual level are therefore just the starting point in an ecosystem of institutional student support. It is the accompanying knowledge that tutors and students can infer from the engagement information that provides staff with the insights to connect the relevant student and institutional dots, collaboratively make wise decisions about what to do given the circumstances and, ultimately, impact individual outcomes. This is where understanding the strategic priorities for each stakeholder and the combined priorities for the institution come into play.
The importance of strategic underpinnings to the success of any change project is not in doubt. Done well, multiple benefits can flow to the institution where the strategic aims and objectives are understood and appreciated across stakeholder groups and a clear line of sight can be established between individual job roles and responsibilities up to the strategic imperatives, and vice versa.
Whatever your priorities, the importance of developing and sharing your strategy remains critical if your analytics deployment is to be executed successfully.
Dr Rachel Maxwell is the Community Manager at Solutionpath.