How schools and universities are succeeding with data analytics

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Businesses constantly need to evolve and improve internal processes, but they are not alone. Schools and universities strive to develop and continually improve how they educate communities. We only need to look at recent media coverage around A-level and GCSE results to see that education is results-based: for students and for institutions. To continue growth, vital decision-makers in education need to monitor and improve retention rates, graduation rates and enrollment levels, in addition to making internal processes more efficient for students and teachers.    

If educational institutions are to have the best possible chance of stimulating growth, they must turn to data analytics. Much has been made of the benefits that data can bring to business and organisations alike in recent years.  In truth, data is without any real value unless you can draw insights from it to make better decisions that drive business success.   

The good news is that numerous leading public institutions are currently putting data strategies in place that can teach even the largest, most commercially-driven businesses a few lessons. Here are three approaches to data analytics that are making a difference in schools and universities, right now: 

1. Detecting ‘warning signs’ and providing guidance for students 

Few will doubt that league tables are an important metric for assessing school performance, but do they show a complete picture? One factor that is often overlooked is student well-being. Yet schools and universities should treat this with the utmost importance, particularly given the fact that students today have reported high levels of stress and mental health issues. This has certainly helped increase the spotlight on student well-being. Crucially, schools can visually analyse data to gather insights on these important factors, helping provide parents and teachers with a more holistic view of overall performance.    

And there is no shortage of real-life examples to illustrate the usefulness of data analytics to schools and universities. Spokane School District, a public school district in Spokane County, Washington which includes high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, has a higher level of poverty than the state average. Administrators wanted to understand why some students were dropping out of school early and whether they could do a better job of detecting the early warning signs.   

By looking at the data to understand trends and spot patterns, using visual analytics software, Spokane School District discovered a series of tipping points – changes in the student environment that tended to lead to disengagement. Steven Gering, Chief Academic Officer, remarked, “We learned that transitions are critical for kids.” When the children made the transition up to middle school, roughly 20 percent of those who would eventually drop out began to display early warning signs. The school found that in some cases the test scores of these children began to fall. In others, they started having behavioural problems or discipline issues. Furthermore, an even higher percentage of children (40 percent) started start exhibiting warning signs that the school had never seen before at the transition to high school. Employing visual analytics has allowed the school to identify these issues and act before it is too late. Administrators have the power to provide support and guidance to students when it matters most. 

2. Identifying new opportunities to support students 

From enrollment to scholarships, visual analytics is an effective way to monitor and improve the performance metrics of the school or university itself by allowing anyone to perform extensive education analysis and share key findings across the organisation. 

Universities in the United Kingdom are also making use of visual analytics, with one notable example being De Montfort University in Leicester. The university has over 27,000 students and needed an analytics solution that could be used by multiple departments to replace its existing makeshift method. At first, the Strategic Planning department worked to analyse data that ranged from marketing campaigns to admission statistics. However, it soon became apparent that the desire for data analytics permeated through several different departments as people – from professors to directors – saw the benefits that came with understanding data in real-time. 

Before long, the De Montfort implemented software from Tableau throughout the University. Its ease of use and scalability across the whole university meant that it was a compelling proposition. Following the implementation of visual analytics, numerous departments within the university have benefitted. The human resources team, finance team, and academic quality departments are using analytics to identify patterns and spot new opportunities to support students. 

3. Putting data at the heart of an organisation    

If schools and universities are to make data valuable, they should build a culture around data. This means putting data right at the centre of all conversations – and it is a necessary step towards making informed decisions and uncovering insights into areas like operations, human resources or stakeholder engagement. After all, key decisions should be made based on facts or knowledge, rather than a knee-jerk or gut feeling reaction. 

While university administrators drive a data-centric culture across the campus, students are learning that visualising data can have a substantial impact on enriching their learning experience.  At the University of Washington, data analytics is employed across the institution, spanning multiple departments. 

According to Anja Canfield-Budde, Director, Enterprise Data and Analytics, UW Information Technology, the University’s goal is to bring about a cultural change around data. People should ideally be able to access data quickly, ask advanced questions, explore, tell stories and derive insights. In the past, administrators have assessed academic data, including major enrollments, student credit hours, degrees awarded and student progress. But their approach has shifted to also include budgets, revenue and expenditures, undergraduate applications and admissions data. 

I hope that by the 2018 results season, more educational institutions not only follow the lead of many businesses but also become leaders in their use of data analytics to improve results - both for students and the schools and universities that work so hard to achieve them.   

With education today being very much a results-based business, it is in schools and universities’ best interests to pay attention to the power of data analytics in order to get the most value from data and drive business forward. 

James Eiloart, SVP EMEA, Tableau Software 

Image Credit: Bluebay / Shutterstock