Data-Driven Learning: The Rise of Analytics In Higher Education

by Dilan Gunawardana
“Many express the fear that higher education is becoming a business, and that analytics are a harbinger of that change. Data, isn’t a threat however, in fact it provides a basis for better decision-making.” Jacqueline Bischel.

Business organisations have been storing and analyzing large volumes of data since the advent of data warehouse systems in the early 1990’s, so it is no surprise that in more recent times, the higher education sector has begun to adopt practices to ensure organizational success at all levels. This is due to arising economic, political and social challenges, such as declining government funding, declining support from business and private sectors, growing regulatory demands 
for transparency and accountability, declining admission due to increasing tuition, upsurge in high school dropouts and increasing operational costs.

In a recent paper, Ben Daniel notes that corporate-academic partnerships are increasing, and corporations require higher education institutions to demonstrate an effort to 
develop and utilize technologies that support research outputs and knowledge transfer commercialization.

However, there is a substantial difference between the kinds of metrics and indicators that are meant to measure students and consumers information needs. Unlike businesses that may ask questions like, “who are my loyal customers?” or “what type of customer is likely to increase his/her spending?” higher education institutions are concerned with addressing questions about retention, admissions, fund-raising and operational efficiency, and therefore may ask questions such as, “which students are least likely to drop out?” or “which alumni are likely to make large donations?”

The Benefits of Utilising Analytics

Analytics is viewed as something relatively new in the realm of higher education. Some view it as a “buzzword”, perceiving 
the investment in analytics as non-essential to their institutions’ progress, however, a strategic investment with clear objectives can help in advancing areas such as resource allocation, student success and finance.

Analytics are used mostly in the areas of enrolment management, student progress and institutional finance and budgeting, but potential areas may include:

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One of the most favorable uses of analytics in education is to help students learn more effectively, and ultimately graduate (view our infographic here). Reports can 
be developed to reveal patterns, trends and exceptions indicating, for example, course strengths and weaknesses, aligning resources with student need, and tracking student progress.

Triggers can also be developed to send a note to a teacher, indicating that a student is at risk of failure, the goal being to improve student performance and to demonstrate the accountability of the institution. Other uses include:

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Can we afford not to?

One of the perceived barriers to adopting analytics is affordability. The costs of project implementation, plus hiring and training the right people can seem daunting, however, there are many compelling reasons to make the investment as listed in the previous section. Cost also becomes less of an issue when senior leadership agrees that analytics is a priority, and part of the strategic plan – especially when it is demonstrated how the use of analytics can help reduce costs or streamline processes.

Advisory service firm, Eduventures illustrates the importance of meeting student enrolment targets, and the potential losses that may occur by
 not adopting an analytics program, with the following scenario (example reflects tuition fees in USD):

“A private non-profit institution misses its fall start by 10 students. 
At average student tuition of $28,500 per year, 10 students reflect a $285,000 deficit in that year. Extrapolated over the six years it takes many students to graduate, this seemingly minor miss of 10 students equates to $1,710,000 in lost revenue”

Therefore, the question changes from “can we afford a higher education analytics program?” to “can we afford to not have one?”.

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