Higher education (HE) professionals will discover the power of data dashboards in a new continuing professional development (CPD) service launching this month. Catherine O’Donnell, who has already sampled analytics labs as a beta service, describes how the programme benefited her.
During 20 years in HE as a teacher, trainer, learning technologist and a manager, I had never created my own interactive data dashboards. That changed when I joined analytics labs.
As a research and impact manager for widening access and participation (WAP) at Ulster University, I was familiar with working with data to create visualisations, but joining this programme allowed me to pick up a host of new skills.
Analytics labs is a CPD programme that brings together teams of data analysts from HE to learn how to use dashboards to help problem-solve some of the key challenges the sector is facing. I first heard about them at a Jisc Connect More event in Belfast in 2017 and was inspired to apply.
At the time of my application I was chairing a data working group in my institution. Part of our remit was to consider how we should best go about developing meaningful dashboards for WAP.
Our main goal was to provide data that would help staff make data-informed WAP decisions to support student success and result in learning gain. We wanted to provide access to a range of WAP data that helps support students throughout their entire learner journey from pre-entry, through their university studies and into employment.
The labs are designed to allow participants to work collaboratively on a defined project that provides opportunities to gain skills in data visualisation, including using Tableau, Alteryx and other tools. It was also an opportunity to participate in agile development, collaborate digitally – with the chance to use tools to enable remote working - and understand the data landscape.
When I signed up, I had to agree to dedicating 13 days of my time over three months. The first session was a showcase event which provided an opportunity to meet my team members, who were drawn from several different institutions, and to see outputs from previous participants.
I found the dashboard walk-throughs particularly beneficial and was excited to be a part of it.
My team was assigned the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF21) topic. Initially, I and others did not know much about REF21, but we had a fabulous leader who helped us get up to speed. If I’d been given a choice of topic, I probably would have picked learner analytics, but I found that working on something I wasn’t familiar with didn’t detract from what I gained in taking part.
Around a dozen further sessions followed with my team, including face-to-face meetings at different locations with the rest remote. These meetings provided great opportunities to share practice, advice and feedback.
Jisc and HESA provided the data we needed and gave us access to Alteryx and Tableau, which allowed us to analyse the data effectively. Lots of support was available on-demand from peers and Jisc experts.
Taking part allowed me to meet some talented people with different areas of expertise who were all willing to provide support and share skills. We soon got to know everyone’s strengths and areas of interest and regularly evaluated each other’s contributions.
The final session involved us showcasing our dashboard outputs to other groups, including the new cohort joining the programme, and to an expert panel.
I was super-impressed with the quality and diversity of the dashboard outputs in such a short space of time and left feeling really inspired and motivated, with lots of ideas about what I wanted to do next for WAP. I was very proud of what our team, ‘The REFengers’ produced and I was delighted with our feedback.
We used data including research income, staff characteristics and postgraduate research student numbers to create the dashboards. These explored the national and institutional picture of REF14, the strength of research environments and made predictions regarding what REF21 might look like.
For me, participating was transformational. It gave me opportunities to learn new skills and develop confidence. What I gained personally also benefited my institution. I have since been able to create many dashboards using both external data available in the public domain and internal data for WAP objectives.
Some of the dashboards I’ve been able to create using external data include primary and post-primary free school meal entitlements, special educational needs profiles, GCSE and A-level attainment and WAP comparisons. Using internal data has enabled me to create dashboards which are allowing Ulster University to better explore WAP data at university, faculty, school and programme level.
Initially, analytics labs pushed me outside my comfort zone and, if I am completely honest, at times I thought I was further behind than I actually was. But when I had time to use Tableau with my own data after the programme ended, the dots connected, and I now use Tableau daily to create dashboards for WAP.
When my analytics labs time came to an end, I signed up to become a member of the alumni forum to keep up to date. I was recently asked to sum up my experience of analytics labs in three words - and I picked transformational, inspirational and motivational - and I would strongly recommend this programme to others.