Why data is like “gold dust” for universities

Monitoring students’ achievements and activities could improve their experiences, but there is a fine line between smart technology and surveillance. 

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Data is like “gold dust” for universities, according to Andy McGregor, the deputy chief innovation officer at educational technology charity Jisc. Jisc’s new Intelligent Campus service, he explains, aims to “mine the information that many universities already have”, such as that relating to attendance and building data, and spot patterns. “Intelligent Campus helps to collate data that universities are already  collecting,” he says. “If universities can make the most of their data, there is an opportunity to enrich the learning environment and the student experience more generally.”

Following on from Jisc’s existing “learning analytics” service, which launched last year and is a cloud-based hub that houses academic information, McGregor terms the Intelligent Campus project a “data lake”. Information from different entry points – “it could be how often students are checking books out of the library, when they’re using the gym, or when they’re handing in their assignments, for example” – will be funnelled towards the Intelligent Campus, which then, either by human hand or by a sorting programme, highlights correlative relationships between different sets of data.

While some relationships are more predictable than others – “low lecture attendance is likely to translate to poor grade performance” – McGregor claims that the more “nuanced” approach of the Intelligent Campus has the potential to offer universities impetus for positive changes they might not have otherwise considered. “Many universities already employ some sort of learning analytics service or virtual learning environment. So the capability of tracking student performance already exists. Intelligent Campus marries that data from the VLE with other types of data, like that collected by university buildings, for instance.”

What do buildings have to do with academic performance? “There’s a lot of scope for IoT technologies. With buildings, at a basic level, it’s useful for students to know if the library is crowded. That would inform their decision-making about when to go. But you can also track how things like temperature, lighting, and even CO2 levels, might impact people’s working habits.”

Would the average student really query a room’s CO2 levels before studying in it? McGregor counters that some information is for the university itself to “take ownership of”. He says: “These invisible marginal gains can help universities, as institutions, make changes to their learning environments. They can make physical spaces more attractive and more pleasant to be in. The Intelligent Campus offering this sort of information means that universities can be smarter about their timetabling and what rooms are used for certain subjects or activities. It allows them to be a lot more tactical.”

Effective use of data, McGregor admits, “depends on ethics and consent”, which is why Jisc has established a code of ethics for all universities that decide to use Intelligent Campus. Students will be given a chance to “opt out” when it comes to what personal information they share. The software is currently being piloted by two universities – Ulster and Morley College London – with a view to “on-boarding” more in the next academic year.

McGregor says that while there is “perhaps a Big Brother suspicion” about some forms of data monitoring, he believes that more students will be receptive to the idea of opting into Intelligent Campus if universities are “transparent” from the start about what their data can and will be used for. “I think students will be able to recognise if data collected is being used genuinely in their interests,” he says. “Besides, you can already achieve quite a lot with anonymous data as it is, without getting into any quandary about privacy. If I looked at my phone [on the app which Intelligent Campus feeds information to], I’d be able to see whether a room was particularly busy or loud, thanks to the sensors in place. You can do a lot of interesting things before you’ve even got to the stage of using identifiable data.”

But one of the more personalised aspects of the Intelligent Campus that McGregor is enthusiastic about is the “nudge” feature under development, which sends push notifications to the student user based on their data records and behaviours. “We have this thing called ‘study goals’ already running on the learning analytics service,” McGregor explains, “and students can register what sort of grades they’re aiming for. They’ll get these ‘nudges’ to remind them about those. Your phone will know what course you’re on. It might tell you that X amount of students on your course have taken out a certain book in the library and therefore recommend you also take it out. If you haven’t been to the library for a while, it might remind you of that fact.” That sounds impressive, if intrusive.

Aside from Intelligent Campus’s main aim of simply enhancing the student experience, McGregor recognises that there is also a mental health angle to be explored with data monitoring technologies. In May 2018, a student at the University of Bristol, Ben Murray, took his own life – in doing so becoming the tenth student to kill themselves at the university in an 18-month period. His father, James, had met his son for lunch a few days beforehand, unaware of his deteriorating mental health, as was ostensibly the University of Bristol.

Murray’s father later approached Bristol with a list of several factors he believed had contributed to his son’s suicide. Jisc has since met with him, and is working with “partners”, to develop the use of learning analytics to support students’ mental health, with that check-list as a starting point. “While some appeared pretty innocuous on their own,” McGregor explains, “when pieced together, you could see that there was a clearer picture being painted about Ben’s situation.”

The factors ranged from simple facts like Ben’s entry to Bristol through the clearing process, to more obvious red flags, including his attendance and academic performance. As Ben prepared to withdraw from Bristol, according to his father, his son had not had a face-to-face meeting with any member of university staff.

Jisc’s target is to roll out Intelligent Campus to “at least 20 universities and colleges” by next year. Intelligent Campus will be available to universities, on a yearly subscription basis. The product’s pricing model, McGregor says, is still being discussed, but it’ll “depend on campus size and student numbers”.

Intelligent Campus, McGregor suggests, will pave the way for “universities to become smarter about how they use their data, even the sets of data that they don’t think could be related at first”. If the software is as successful as he hopes, this could provide “infrastructure for artificial intelligence and machine learning to be embraced” by universities. That’s if the students, whose lives will be charted in forensic detail online, agree to sign up.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman