All roads lead back to the student: using data for a student-centric engagement strategy

Written by Rachel Maxwell, PhD, PFHEA, Principal Advisor, Solutionpath.

Digitisation is helping to shape the future of higher education, with many forward-thinking institutions implementing a range of technologies to support student engagement. However, the next step for many universities is to understand how their students are responding and leverage the data that is produced across this landscape to take positive action that impacts students’ success.


To engage students is to help maximise their potential 

Digital transformation is a wide-stretching topic, and one where the picture vastly differs depending on the institution. Engagement analytics is a seemingly small component that fits into the larger digital picture but is an essential tool helping universities to improve student success, enhance teaching and learning, inform curriculum design and create the best student experience. To engage students is to help maximise their potential, but to achieve this, institutions need to ensure they are focused on the outcomes of their students. 

There are many universities who have explored educational technologies to enhance in-person learning, yet there is still a way to go in terms of adopting a digital mindset with data that can result in achieving the best result possible. 


Using the data we already have 

The data that already exists in a university and is created every single day is the most accurate evidence of how students are receiving and engaging with their studies. It tells us where they may be struggling, and where further support could be needed. While this wealth of data is often overwhelming, it can be streamlined into accessible information which can feed into a wider engagement strategy. 

One university that is exploring the strategic value of data-informed decision making is The University of Essex. It is been adapting its approach in line with its education strategy which focuses on ensuring success and good wellbeing for students. Implementing learning analytics through StREAM, Solutionpath’s Student Engagement Analytics Platform, – known as LEAP (Learner Engagement Analytics Portal) at the institution, it can now gather data on the engagement and attendance of its students and support the wider strategic development of the education offered, as well as offer help and guidance for those at risk of early withdrawal. Richard Stock, Academic Registrar at the University of Essex, says that data is “playing an increasingly important part in our ambitions” and explains that part of the University’s education strategy is “the responsible use of data as a tool for development, wellbeing and success” for students. The University has gained a wealth of insight that has been pivotal for designing student support to tackle critical spots throughout the students’ learning journey, while also adhering to its approach to induction and transition activities to increase retention in the first few months of a course.


Start with the future

Starting small and progressing at a pace that suits your strategy can enable more effective outcomes. However, such strategies need to be suitable for the long-term and grow with the ever-changing landscape of technology.

Teesside University started integrating engagement analytics as the Covid lockdown began and quickly realised the important role analytics play in the wider transformation picture, enabling the University to identify students who were engaging with their studies. Mark Simpson, Pro Vice-Chancellor at Teesside University, says “Our future-facing learning strategy has been used to drive significant change within our organisation. This includes how we will help our students to become globally connected, ethically engaged and digital empowered.” As illustrated by Simpson, a future-focused stance adopted by the institution can accelerate the positive change needed to help students feel as if they are getting the most out of all aspects of their education. Teesside has now progressed to revising its approach to personal tutoring by creating a central student success team, allowing the University to effectively identify issues among students and provide an intervention to support. 


Developing a transparent analytics environment 

You can’t have successful student analytics and future-thinking strategies without deep consideration of who makes up your student population. Data is more than technology and figures – it’s people and culture. This means developing a transparent analytics environment where students have a clear understanding of how their data will be used solely for the purposes of supporting their academic success and can access the same data as staff, giving them the freedom to use technologies that will help them gain perspective on their own learning journey.

Engagement analytics is a vital aspect of building a solid relationship between the staff providing intervention support and students, who can use this data to create a detailed picture of an individual student and work in collaboration to create a unique roadmap of development. Andy Ramsden, Director of Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching and Learning Analytics at The University of Law, highlights that “A key pillar within data strategy is people development”. In other words, all data analysis is set out to point back to how best to maximise student development.

Students need to be involved in the digital transformation of their own university, as the deployment and development of technology is primarily for the benefit of themselves. This means having an engagement analytics platform that clearly outlines their behaviour and progress in a simple dashboard with easy-to-understand measurement insights. Helping students grasp the data behind their engagement allows for more meaningful conversations to take place with their tutors and empower them to take their next steps. Ramsden further notes “For all people, staff and students, to take ownership of the data they need to be comfortable with seeing stories through the data.” The data needs to be presented in a way that is more than just numbers, but a detailed report that strongly ties back into the student’s own life.

By having students fully on-board with their university’s digital strategy, including the use of their data, a culture of transparency is established, allowing valuable conversations to occur and real change to be seen.

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