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Supporting student success in Wales with learning analytics

There’s an app for that: HEFCW's Cliona O’Neill explains how nationwide collaboration and technology are supporting students to address challenges at Welsh universities.
This article is more than 5 years old

Cliona O’Neill is Head of Student Experience at the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

In Wales we have a tradition of collaboration between universities, in particular on enhancing learning and teaching through technology.

This resulted in the GWELLA programme (“‘enhancement’ in Welsh) and the development of the shared library management service and now includes our nation’s approach to learning analytics.

What are learning analytics?

If your institution collects, measures, analyses and reports on the progress of learners and the contexts in which learning takes place and uses this data to improve learning and teaching, then you are already involved in learning analytics.

If you are on the academic side, learning analytics can help you understand better your students and curriculum. For university leaders, it can be used to enhance student success, retention, and wellbeing. Press coverage shows that these are very high-profile issues at the moment, with mental health in particular being described as a “crisis” and higher education providers being urged to take action.

What’s happening in Wales?

The UK will soon be getting its own national learning analytics service for higher and further education, developed by Jisc. We have taken this one step further: from 2018-19 all our higher education providers will take part in Learning Analytics Cymru, which aims to improve the educational outcomes for our students. Through the project, providers nationwide will be supported to take up and make strategic use of learning analytics over a three year period. We believe that learning analytics will have additional impact if the resulting insights can be pooled and used strategically to achieve institutional, regional and national goals.

We will match fund the cost of providers’ participation in the learning analytics work for the first two years and we will pay for additional support to help them to get the best results from the project. Engaging with learning analytics was a key recommendation from the review of our ten year strategy Enhancing Learning and Teaching through Technology (2007-08 to 2017-18). In Wales our focus on the student experience will be enhanced through the use of learning analytics to improve learning and teaching and enable support to be targeted at the students who need it most.

Supporting all providers

We recognise that Welsh providers are at different stages of maturity with learning analytics, and we have designed the project so that all institutions are able to move forward. Those just starting out will be supported to explore their readiness when it comes to data, processes, and strategy, and to develop an appropriate implementation plan. Those who are further down the track can work with Jisc to explore more advanced applications of analytics. For example, delivering insights which support the improvement of learning, teaching and assessment on modules, programmes and institutionally.

Even at the institutional level, Learning Analytics Cymru can help to achieve our national aims by identifying possible problems at an earlier stage. Work done to date has shown that learning analytics can reduce non-continuation rates – that is, increased retention and progression – benefiting students and institutions.

Since many of the published findings on learning analytics are international, the project will explore what works best for learners at our own providers, recognising that different students within our diverse student body will have different challenges and needs. This will help to deliver Welsh government priorities around widening access by ensuring that students at risk of non-continuation are actively supported by evidence-informed interventions at an early stage.

The anonymised insights offered by the service allow providers to assess the different measures they put in place. This will help track and identify improvements in learning and teaching on individual programmes. Key areas for improvement include assessment and feedback processes, as well as ensuring that the student voice is heard – again, more areas of Welsh government priority.

The bigger picture

The Wise Wales partnership is one tool that already encourages the student voice to be heard. The Learning Analytics Cymru programme will provide another opportunity for providers to work directly with students and through NUS Wales to support student engagement.

Learning Analytics Cymru will also help to safeguard student and public financial contributions to HE by ensuring that students have the appropriate support to allow them to succeed. This work also provides a means of delivering Welsh government policy for improving outcomes in HE in novel ways, enabling providers to make effective use of the wide range of data that is collected about individual students. And at least one regulated FE institution in Wales will trial how learning analytics can help progression from further to higher education.

Jisc commissioned a report by former Salford University vice chancellor Martin Hall into the opportunities for learning analytics to support well-being and mental health. This suggests that whole, large scale and longitudinal data sets from learning analytics “have the potential to provide key insights for informed public policy, in ways that are now standard in the field of public health”.

Learning Analytics Cymru sees the creation of a national-level data hub containing anonymised data sets for successive student cohorts. Over time this will produce valuable information for planners, not just at university level but at national or government level. Undeniably, the applications for this longitudinal data to be used positively to guide planning and policy are vast – and not only go beyond our own borders, but go beyond education too.

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