How data can help improve student engagement

Life in the higher education sector can be challenging, with increasing costs and shifting funding, not to mention rising expectations from students and intense competition for their applications. Institutions will have to balance all these factors and more to be competitive.

Let me introduce myself. I am a Business Development Manager at Simpson Associates concentrating on the Higher and Further Education sectors. More importantly (to me at least), I am the father of 2 young adults currently studying at universities. This is one reason I’m passionate about helping higher education institutions to unlock the power of their data and provide the best service they can.

My two boys are very different, and I know that on a campus of thousands of students everyone will all be totally unique. However, we also know that those students will share certain characteristics with each other. The organised ones who get to every lecture and tutorial, and their counterparts, the disorganised who attend intermittently or hand in work late. The brainiacs who absorb everything very quickly, and the slower learners who may need to put in the extra hours to keep up.  There will be students who need additional physical, mental, or educational support, and when they have access to such resources can go on to achieve amazing results. The challenge for universities, is being able to proactively identify such students.

When it comes to student welfare, a few universities are starting to make inroads by using student engagement factors as indicators of whether a student is happy, settled, engaged in their learning and likely to continue with their studies. The amount of data available through lecture, seminar and tutorial attendance systems, submission portals, and even entry swipe cards is immense. It may seem a daunting task consolidate that data into actionable insights. However, by leveraging machine learning technologies, universities could be in the position to proactively identify students’ needs for additional assistance, intervention, or pastoral care, thus enabling more effective student engagement and ultimately, increasing retention rates.

Of course, not every establishment has easy access to data, and I am very eager to steer them towards a position where they have access to their data, can make sense of it and can use it to make impactful decisions. Some may still be on old legacy systems that fight their every query. Others may have silos of data spread across several locations both on-premise and in the cloud. Old legacy systems can still be holding important data long after they have slipped from common usage. Helping formulate a policy that unlocks all the right data and makes it available in an agreed format, converted to the current structure is often difficult, but never impossible, and it opens a world of new possibilities.

Admittedly, Universities also have a few other issues to concentrate on too, not least balancing their income and expenditure during a time of rising prices, higher wage demands but no change to the student fees cap. And like any other large organisation, they have staff retention and recruitment, managing their buildings and planning new developments to contend with too. All the while, they are constantly adapting their portfolio of courses both at graduate and post graduate levels to ensure they can attract the right numbers of suitable applications to fill places on those courses. Juggling while riding a unicycle on a tightrope looks easy by comparison.

I have been in the data industry far longer than my boyish good looks suggest, and whenever I see any organisation juggling so many competing issues at the same time as universities have to, I know that decisions are being made all the time. My worry is whether the decision makers have the right information at hand to support that decision making. Invariably, they do not, but many universities are moving in the right direction.

At Simpson Associates, we use data to help our customers to do some pretty amazing things. As my children progress through university and beyond, I’m hoping that someone uses the data they have about them to make sure they stay on track, attend regularly, work hard, and ultimately remain on track to graduate. On a personal level, I’m hoping for all that too, and that they return home with as few visible tattoos or piercings as possible. Universities, like proud dads, are really aiming for the same results. Happy students who can be proud of their accomplishments and growth as they learn about their chosen subjects, gaining knowledge about the world around them and eventually graduate to either join the world of work or continue within academia.

At the end of their university studies, those graduating students hopefully score the university highly on the National Students Survey. Luckily, no such “National Dads Survey” exists!



If you have any queries regarding Data Analytics, like machine learning or the tools mentioned in this article, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us via our live chat. One of our specialists will be more than happy to answer your questions.


Blog Author

Paul Baron, Business Development Manager, Simpson Associates