Taking the data conversation to a new level

Of all the sensitive and totemic words out there, none seems to cause so much angst and controversy as the N-word. Who can use it? In what context does it become offensive? Can we use it ironically? Does repeated use embed its offensiveness or reduce its ability to shock and offend?

It is time for me to come out: my name is Andy and I’m a Nerd.

The Higher Education Commission has published a report called From Bricks to Clicks which looks at the potential of data and analytics in higher education. The report sets out a well-balanced summary of the problems and opportunities that data presents in this age of ‘big data’ and it makes a number of recommendations that align well with work previously done by HEDIIP, Jisc and others. It looks at how other sectors have responded to the data revolution and sets out a clear and coherent vision of a future for HE where data is a well-managed asset that delivers real value for institutions, students and the broader community. It also does a good job in demystifying some of the jargon-filled concepts that litter this domain.

For some – especially us nerds who are immersed in the world of data – this report might not seem to be breaking any new ground. But to dismiss this as a mere summarising of existing initiatives and thinking would be missing the point entirely.

The publication of this report is a significant moment in our journey to build a better data infrastructure for UK higher education because it is coming from a very different place. The members of the Higher Education Commission are senior, experienced leaders, strategists and Politicians and previous Commission inquiries have addressed topics like the regulation and the financial sustainability of HE. These are not people whose natural habitat is the world of petabytes, XML and FUNDCOMP; they are perhaps the most un-nerd bunch you could ever assemble. Yet their decision to base this inquiry on data in HE is in itself a recognition of the fundamental transformations that data technology is enabling.

From me, the key messages in the report are spot on: Data management is key to unlocking values and efficiencies; learner analytics can deliver transformative benefits and HESA should lead on the rationalisation of HE data collections through the Data Futures programme. Perhaps more importantly, the report sets out its stall and makes its case in a way that should speak to a broad and a senior-level audience. The key opportunity that this report presents is to put these issues firmly on the policy agenda for leaders across the sector; to take the data conversation out of the nerdspace and to a different level.

Data is everybody’s issue; everybody’s responsibility and everybody’s opportunity. And you don’t have to take that from me.

2 thoughts on “Taking the data conversation to a new level”

  1. Mike Picken says:

    Data collection and analysis are paramount, but go together. Responsible data governance includes not just ensuring that the data collected is accurate and appropriate, but that advanced and appropriate statistical techniques are used to ensure any inferences from the data collected are valid, take due account of context and are not just based on random variances. I see a lot of work on the former but the government and corporate level obsession with overly simple league tables and performance indicators, typically based on a single time frame or dataset independent of context, has meant not enough is being done on the former.

    The publication of this report is a step forward in highlighting the issues … but there’s still a very long way to go.

  2. There are also huge political issues that data raise such as who owns it? What should it be used for? Will it’s use further exclude the disadvantaged? Will it be used used for the students’ benefit? Or the institutions? They are not always the same. Etc. There are worrying as well as hopeful signs.

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