You know those words that gradually start to crop up more and more frequently until you feel you really should find out more? In academic circles, ‘analytics’ is probably one of those words.
The Wikipedia definition is a bit dry – ‘the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data’ – but at its most practical, analytics offers a means for universities and colleges to examine the reams of routinely collected data in new ways, to gain insights that can help to improve student and teacher experience, and bring about greater operational efficiencies.
That said, if this is your first brush with analytics, it’s a good idea to resist the urge to Google just yet.
That’s because lots of large businesses have taken to the use of analytics in a major way, using it to help them predict what individual customers might want to buy, invest in (or, in the case of Google, browse) next and it’s easy to get put off by the scale, complexity and cost of the systems and processes they are using to do that.
The reality is that virtually every academic institution will already have the data and the skills that they need in-house, so it is perfectly possible for them to make a start with analytics and secure themselves some quick wins. Why not pick an issue that is a current priority for your institution and see how analytics can help with that.
Enhancing student experience
As competition among colleges and universities hots up, enhancing student experience is a priority that many might choose. That would be entirely appropriate – the 2012 Horizon Report identified learning analytics as having strong potential to improve student experience. And at the same time the University of Huddersfield were among a group that worked with Jisc on an analytics project to explore the correlation between library activity data and student attainment, examining the number of visits students made to the library, the number of books they borrowed and the number of times e-resources were accessed, then tracking these against demographic data and final attainment grades.
They discovered patterns of library use that could be a red flag indicating that individual students are struggling or failing to engage with the course work. These patterns present Huddersfield with the insights required to devise effective early intervention strategies to help students get back on track before it’s too late.
Cutting operational costs
Or it may be that cutting operational costs is the nut that you need to crack. In these tougher times, most of us can think of plenty of examples where the term ‘efficiencies’ has been used to mean simple cost-cutting, resulting in a depressingly lower standard of service. Analytics offers real opportunities for institutions to reduce costs while also maintaining and even improving services.
By analysing precisely how resources are being managed and used, for example, library services should be able to purchase resources more economically and focus their delivery more accurately, while research repositories can use analytics to classify research in more sophisticated ways, enabling freer access to the material across the boundaries between disciplines and also offering institutional comparisons and visual benchmarking.
Improving estates management
When it comes to estates management, the University of Manchester has shown how a robust analysis of data relating to student activity, utilities, timetabling and building use can support work in the areas of sustainability and carbon reduction.
But I should also sound a note of caution. Analytics often involves the sharing of data between software systems, departments and universities to create larger and more informative datasets. Lots of this data can be linked to an individual student or researcher. Data protection and privacy issues are therefore crucial, and students will inevitably be concerned about the ways in which their information is being used. Students have to be fully informed about the ways you may use the data they collect, and colleges and universities must be sure they own the data before they share it. Similarly, anyone that they share it with must have the appropriate licence before they start to work with it.
There are now some great examples of the really creative use of analytics dotted throughout the UK education landscape, demonstrating how analytics can help in getting to grips with some of the really big issues of the day. But there are some significant challenges as well.
At Jisc we have done lots of work preparing resources to help you tackle the issues and case studies to show why it is worth the effort, for more information take a look at our analytics overview. Now, we are developing a shared library analytics service for higher education. The project, called Library Analytics and Metrics Project (LAMP) held its inaugural meeting in April and we anticipate that the resulting resources will be available in late 2013. Take a look at what happened at the first meeting and leaf through the new business intelligence infoKit for practical ideas to get you started. For some quick tips on how to get started with analytics, explore this series of briefings.