• Utilising objective data to provide equitable student support

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    The ability to drive social mobility through equitable support is available to the universities that can leverage the student engagement data that they already have, explains Richard Gascoigne, CEO of Solutionpath

    We’ve all heard the term levelling up, but what does it really mean for higher education? To me, it simply means getting everyone up to the same level, right?

    But when it comes to government policy, the idea that through effort and application we can rise to the top is the very antithesis of fair equity – a lofty ambition of jobs, boosting productivity in places of previous decline and limit any degeneration.

    So, just to escape the ideology and dogma let’s assume that in the case of the education sector, it’s equity and addressing the opportunity gap, getting the education that allows you to progress socially. This was something that has been around for quite some time. I recall specifically in 2017 when the then Education Secretary Justine Greening was proposing levelling up in a white paper called Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential. This paper is closely aligned with the current zeitgeist with ‘opportunity areas’ linking funding across schools, employers and the launch of the social mobility action plan which included FE, skills, early years and even attainment gaps.

    Clearly this remains in the current thinking, albeit largely expanded to be broader in application including wider industry, transport, health and even crime. Although, specifically what and where remain somewhat opaque, to me at least.

    What I do know is that education is fundamental to any change agenda. Universities are regional power houses that have huge influence locally. They offer the policy makers a powerful means to drive the levelling up agenda and being part of the regional common endeavour. But perhaps there is more work to be done to clarify that students are all individuals and broad stroke policy decisions on elements such as student loan access would stymie the very agenda that they are purporting to support.

    There is no doubt that for universities, this renewed government focus as part of their policy big ideas means challenge, but this is recognition of the immense power in universities social good which is surely welcome? The change of emphasis on progression once in university means students will need support, and, over the years, we’ve seen how data has an important part in not only finding those that need help but supporting universities in understanding how they can conduct targeted interventions without marginalising others.

    Using the data differently

    Recently, we have seen a significant shift from digital tools being used exclusively for individual outreach which aid in early intervention, to also using the data in support of ‘objectively’ analysing student engagement data to determine where best practice exists.

    Comparing how students are engaging at various points of the academic year, or how they engage on average allows institutions to focus on what makes a course different or successful. Or why demographic groups engage very differently to each other, do their personal characteristics limit their understanding of how to succeed in a HE setting?

    Utilising data, and more importantly objective data, provides real-time insights that can be used at varying analysis levels, whether individually, as in the case where data could be used to identify what good learning patterns look like at an individual level. Or, how programmes are performing in contexts of other similar academic programmes to accelerate ‘what works’.

    As a real-world example, we worked with one institution that used data to first identify those students that may need support (individual), so as an early warning. They then conducted an academic intervention (cohort) and then measured both the post engagement effect which saw these students improve in their engagement overall and measured the effect of an intervention with the outcome being double digit GPA performance increases. Demonstrably showing ‘what works’ in the development of practice.

    Delivering the insight

    The pandemic has certainly brought into question the way universities monitor engagement. So far for many, understanding student engagement has been a trial-and-error approach based on abstract data and out-dated methods to give limited or no measure of success. There’s little consistency, which prevents universities from identifying struggling students or improving their processes.

    Some universities admit they’re not sure how to get meaning from their data or what good engagement at their campus looks like. And with invisible engagement comes the concern of persistence. How do you progress students without understanding their concerns at a time that is meaningful? It’s here that technology can deliver the insight that enables good practice for understanding what good engagement looks like and can lead to positive actions ahead of a crisis.

    There is raft of ‘signal’ available now from institutional learning resources across the new digital landscape, but how this gets harnessed in a meaningful way is what matters, but the value is exponential.

    The meaning is translating signal to action. What can then be achieved is a responsive organisation that is more student focused and can adapt with the same velocity. This insight data is therefore quite different from annual five question surveys from a subset of students that measure their whole experience – whilst this is important qualitative data, to drive real responsive change is not likely.

    So, whilst levelling up is not a woolly policy agenda, the job of driving social mobility through equitable support is available to institutions for those that can leverage from the data that they already have. Raising standards requires uniform, consistent and incremental change, where every student has equity in support and institutions can deliver programmatically.


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