We explore the topic of analytics and looks at the ways in which the data you collect can be used to improve the experience of your students.
What are analytics?
Analytics is defined by Wikipedia as ‘the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data’. 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.
An example of this can be seen 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 what you’re looking for. 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.
Why are analytics important?
Analytics mines the information an organisation already possesses and gives the opportunity to extract useful insights from the data it collects as part of its daily business (activity data), thus helping them to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
For those of us working in education and research, analytics can provide insights into the behaviours of our learners as a way for colleges and universities to use the rafts of data they routinely collect to gain a better understanding of how to improve the learner experience and so gain a strategic advantage.
In an increasingly competitive market the use of analytics 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 flagged as having real potential to improve the student experience.
What are the benefits of analysing your data?
- Improved student experience
Using activity patterns to recommend resources of particular relevance in the individual's context (taking account of course, unit and even physical location) will accord with student expectations of a quality online experience; the same techniques can also benefit researchers. This is illustrated in case studies from the University of Huddersfield and the Open University.
- Higher student retention
Patterns of student behaviour (such as Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) use, library resource access, lecture attendance) may help identify students at risk of performing poorly or dropping out, thereby generating early warnings and enabling timely interventions to increase success. This is illustrated in case studies from Huddersfield and Roehampton universities.
- Cost saving through efficient practice
Analysing how resources are being used, managed and curated should enable library and learning resource services to budget more economically and to resource and purchase more effectively. This is illustrated in the case study from the University of Pennsylvania.
- Organising and analysing research
Many universities maintain repositories containing their researchers' publications. Analytics enable research to be classified in a more sophisticated way than simply aligning them with disciplines and organisational units and can provide institutional comparisons and visual benchmarking. This is illustrated in case studies from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Glasgow.
- Estates management
Analytics used with utilities, financial, timetabling and buildings data can help inform decision making activities in the area of sustainability and carbon footprints by monitoring performance and progress. This is illustrated in the case study from the University of Manchester.
Analytics enable organisations to forecast and make reliable predictions and Jisc’s new business intelligence infoKit will offer peer advice when launched in April 2013.
How do students feel about it?
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 colleges and universities are sure they own data before sharing it, that anyone else who uses it has the appropriate licence to do so, and that students understand the ways in which information gathered on them may be used.
There are data protection issues, too – Jisc CETIS recently published a report, Legal, Risk and Ethical Aspects of Analytics in Higher Education, dedicated to helping institutions find their way through the issues.
How can I use it in my institution?
For some quick tips on how to get started with analytics, read our blog, join in the discussion and explore our series of 11 briefings from Jisc CETIS. Analytics: what is changing and why does it matter? introduces the series. Titles include:
- Analytics for the whole institution: balancing strategy and tactics. Areas where analytics can be fruitfully applied include: student retention (identifying students at risk of dropping-out); recommender services (e.g. students on your course also looked at these books); and optimising resource investment (e.g. basing library subscriptions on use of resources)
- Analytics for learning and teaching, which draws on case studies to illustrate how analytics can be used to improve teaching and identify students at risk.
- Analytics for understanding research. Analytics is already used in research management (e.g. bibliometrics), but there are now opportunities to do more.
- Legal, risk and ethical aspects of analytics in higher education, which discusses the implications of issues such as data protection, confidentiality and consent, and freedom of information legislation.
Good management of activity data is essential for effective analytics. See our report, Activity data – delivering benefits from the data deluge, which outlines the new opportunities and challenges for universities and colleges, and our guide Exploiting activity data in the academic environment.
Case studies mentioned in the analytics series include the use of library activity data to establish a correlation between library use and student attainment; and the development of a service to recommend resources to students.
Follow the Jisc CETIS analytics series, a useful blog on the topic to keep up to date on developments.
What does the future hold for analytics?
At the moment there are pockets of good analytics practice dotted about the higher education sector. The challenge now is to spread this good practice to benefit more institutions.
We will be holding a series of community events bringing together all interested parties to explore emerging practice and what the future holds, helping to identify future sector needs and benefits. Jisc is also developing a shared library analytics service for higher education. The project, called Library Analytics and Metrics Project (LAMP), will be available in late 2013.
This article originally featured in issue 36 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).