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Future trends
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Colleges and universities routinely collect large quantities of data that is mostly just used for reporting. Analytics is an emerging discipline that could use that data to transform the student experience, while fine-tuning resource provision. And that’s just for starters!

Analytics. It’s defined by Wikipedia as ‘the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data’, and the topic keeps climbing higher up the academic agenda as converts in the commercial world demonstrate how it is helping them boost customer satisfaction and improve business efficiency.

Every time you search for something in Google, the search engine uses data it has collected about your interests and previous searches to tailor the ads and information it shows to match your interests. In the same way, successful online retailers gather data about what we have bought or looked at before, and use it to inform their recommendations for what we might like to try next. That’s analytics in action.

Now, learning analytics is emerging as a way for institutions to use the rafts of data they routinely collect and hold for more than just reporting – to gain a better understanding of what they are doing, and so gain a strategic advantage. It is part of a growing academic trend towards big and open data: learning analytics is identified in the 2012 Horizon Report as a key trend for education, and as having real potential to improve student experience.

It is still very much an emerging discipline, and the lessons learned in business will not all apply to the academic environment. With this in mind, Jisc has been funding a number of reports, programmes and projects focused on analytics, exploring new ways to turn data into genuinely useful insights.

And we have taken into account the lessons being learned internationally, notably through EDUCAUSE, the US-based higher education technology partnership group. Late in 2011, its chief executive Diana Oblinger reflected that “analytics holds transformative promise for education, but the field is still in its developmental stages.” EDUCAUSE has gone on to make analytics a priority for 2012, and continues to work to develop its potential. For its part, Jisc has done extensive work in the area over the past few months, funding a number of analytics programmes at UK universities and colleges within Jisc’s Activity Data, Business Intelligence and Relationship Management programmes.

Many of the experiences, and the lessons learned, have been synthesised into a single Jisc web corpus, available on the activity data website.


“Jisc is working on ways to turn analytics into a business intelligence service tailored to the needs of HE and FE. The focus now is on student retention and attainment, but analytics ultimately has the potential to make a massive impact across all aspects of institutional management, from facilities management to course design.”

Andy McGregor
Jisc programme manager, digital infrastructure

From among the many projects:

The Open University (OU) tracked students as they engaged with online resources, identifying what they looked at online, and how long for, to explore ways to predict potential failure to achieve, and then target the available resources to make the most effective early interventions possible.

At the University of Sheffield, the project team used geographical mapping and demographic data to track the background that students arrive from, to examine the impact that social and economic status may have on attainment, with a view to planning appropriate interventions to support struggling students at an early stage.

Meanwhile, projects within the Relationship Management Programme, such as one run by the University of Derby, examined ways to deliver ‘quick wins’ via service design, creating responsive support structures that adapt to the needs of individual learners. It focused particularly on students arriving at their institution with significant barriers to success, or those who are studying remotely, who can quickly become isolated when things get tough.

Programme manager Myles Danson says that we are already seeing analytics aid universities in targeting their support resources more effectively, and on an ‘individual needs’ level, by highlighting those students displaying behavioural trends associated with failure.

He said: “People in some quarters are promising the earth from analytics, but there is more legwork to be done first.

Nonetheless, it is a discipline that makes use of resources that institutions already have at their finger-tips, and it can help them to achieve some really meaningful ‘quick wins’.”

It’s already clear that analytics brings with it many challenges, as well as opportunities. One that shouldn’t be underestimated is the fact that using and sharing data will raise concerns over privacy. It is essential that institutions are sure they own data before sharing it, and that anyone else who uses it has the appropriate licence to do so. There are data protection issues, too – in early December we’ll be publishing a report, ‘Legal, Risk and Ethical Aspects of Analytics in Higher Education’, dedicated to helping institutions find their way through the issues.

And there are practical concerns, around developing the skillsets necessary to exploit the power of analytics effectively. Calls to make analytics a discipline in itself are getting louder, and SoLAR, the Society for Learning Analytics Research explored these issues at its inaugural meeting in November 2012. Whether that proves necessary or not, institutions will certainly need to help people develop the necessary skills.

In the meantime, we have produced the Jisc CETIS Analytics series, a number of detailed reports on analytics for HE covering the opportunities, the resources that will be required, and the risks attached, whether your interest is in teaching, learning, research, admin or support services.

In early December, JISC published a separate report, ‘Activity Data: Delivering benefits from the data deluge’, and we are shortly to publish a revised version of the Business Intelligence InfoKit, and to produce a new Relationship Management compendium to support universities and colleges as they exploit the opportunities afforded to them by analytics.


“We are producing our report series, and the online resources,
to stimulate debate about all the issues surrounding analytics.
Jisc has completed a deep and wide-ranging scan of what is going
on in the field, and now it is time to open up the discussion so we
can make analytics work for HE.”

Myles Danson
Jisc programme manager, technology supported business change

More info…

Contact Myles Danson Jisc programme manager and follow his blog.

See Andrew McGregor’s profile, and follow him on the Jisc blog.

Read our crib sheet on how to analyse ‘big data’ to run your institution more effectively.




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Find out how to use data to support better business planning.


Solutions to student retention problems are suggested here.


Read more about Jisc’s current thinking on analytics here.



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