Library data is an untapped resource to support student success

Ahead of the upcoming Kortext spring webinar David Kernohan spoke to panellist and Solent University, Southampton librarian Amy Stubbing about how universities can make better use of library data on student activity

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Just about every provider in the sector uses data about what their students are doing to help them make decisions.

Everything from the provision of courses and resources through to interventions where students are disengaged stem from the careful analysis of data. And there’s a lot of it about.

Back in the day, student engagement with the virtual learning environment was the key data point – the state of the art was linking this to data on student characteristics to identify where a period of non-engagement could indicate a deeper problem (and a chance for some kind of intervention).

Fast-forward to 2024, and the amount of data sources available is astonishing. Every single system that students interact with produces a data trail – the insight that is potentially available has the power to support just about every decision a provider makes.

Finding and using data

Despite being the information experts on campus, the library has been something of a backwater in this data-led transformation. When experienced sector librarian Amy Stubbing took on her new role as University Librarian at Solent University, Southampton, the opportunity to play a central part in getting the best from this underutilised resource was one of the things she was most excited about. She told me:

Every university collates and compares its institutional data, but often the level of data available within the library services is not used or even known about. The potential to understand our students and how they are engaging and learning is huge (and resultant opportunities for predictive analysis and intervention), so when this data isn’t used there’s a real loss of understanding happening. Library services need to be at the centre of the data landscape for institutions but that is not consistent practice just yet.

The library itself has long used any data it has to support its own decisions. Understanding the ways in which students are interacting with resources, and how academics are recommending materials, is a big part of managing a library budget. Stubbing has written a well-regarded book about this complex world (Data driven decisions: a practical toolkit for librarians and information professionals), which encourages and trains information professionals in how to engage with data effectively. But just how much data do libraries have?

There is so much! At a basic level you know who is borrowing what, and who is interacting with the wide range of resources the library offers. We can then add in how users engage with the physical and online spaces, how they are engaging with training and support services (or not), what questions they ask. Then there’s the various platforms and services we subscribe to, some of which can give you details down to how many pages a user has examined in a book, how long they spent on those pages, or the depth of engagement. And these are just a snapshot of the data we have available. We really do have a rich tapestry of information which is chronically underused.

Platform pragmatism

The platforms can however bring complications. For some, access to user data is an extra cost option – for others the outputs are only readable via other software developed by the same company or within a particular software ecosystems. There can be restrictions on the usage of application layer interfaces (API), alongside practical details in matching data to students and resources.

There is a lot more work to do on integration. I can understand the rationale being vendor lock-in with some of the bigger companies, but it hampers innovation and makes it harder to get things done which impacts everyone’s ability to grow with the products we are being sold.

I’m braced here for the anti-vendor position I’ve heard from so many in the sector, but Stubbing’s perspective is much more pragmatic:

As a sector we don’t engage enough with the businesses we rely on to support students. I’m not a fan of a lot of the situation with the current marketplace, but we need those services to do what we do, and they need us. The cost of ebooks is a huge problem, but the benefit students get from unlimited access to core textbooks is massive, particularly when we consider widening access and participation. There is also the real value added by some vendors as teaching and learning tools – we’re no longer just exploring resources as resources, they’re tools to deliver our teaching and learning aims. It’s only by spending time engaging with vendors that together we can get these services into a shape and value proposition that works.

But surely, I suggest, with every cost in the sector under pressure, spending time and effort working with commercial companies to improve their products is a luxury it is difficult to justify?

I disagree. Working with vendors, with sector bodies, and with other providers helps to promote the amazing work we are doing here, and gives access to the cutting edge of what is going on elsewhere. Vendor engagement is valuable development for my staff, and an important way of getting the most out of the library budget. I also think we can’t understate the value of taking an active role in the development of products that we need to support our students and academics.

Data-driven choices

Library budgets are odd beasts, in that a lot of spending is driven by demands from other parts of the university. When academics specify books or resources as required on their courses, the librarian just has to find the best price. But things are changing.

It depends on the institution but often purchasing decisions are an iterative process. It’s still driven by academic reading lists, but this is a start of a conversation – not the end of it. We see ourselves as supporting academics in their pedagogic choices.

These conversations are about models of resource-based learning that are wider integration than just single modules with multiple books, and thinking beyond books altogether. In modern delivery courses are multi mode – for example at the University of Westminster there has been a trial of a module being delivered both in person and remotely at a prison. Resources need to be capable of supporting diverse modes of learning.

Data on resource usage also plays an important part here – if an expensive resource is not being used well, there are important questions to be asked about value. With closer integrations between resources and courses, this would be a finding that is passed to course teams too. Is the resource right for the course? Does the course have bigger issues with engagement? Getting the data right helps universities get better at every aspect of the student experience. It informs other, more qualitative observations, as a way to understand everything a university does. In difficult times, it can help providers get the most out of limited resources.

Amy Stubbing is speaking on these and related themes at the Kortext spring webinar on 2 May. There’s sometimes a cynicism about vendor-led events – given her comments above I thought I’d give her the last word on that:

Solent University, Southampton doesn’t currently have Kortext, but we did work with Kortext at my previous university. The conversation about data and libraries is very important and, like I said, we need to be able to talk to vendors about what we need and work in partnership with them if things are ever going to get better

This article was supported by Kortext.

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