A Reflection on Learning Analytics: Inside the Siyaphumelela Conference Day 1
The Siyaphumelela (we succeed) Conference day 1 included presentations about research projects that have made use of big data (data analytics) to inform university strategy and policy. In addition to the latter, there was a panel discussion comprising of three vice chancellors (Prof C. de la Rey (UP), Prof. A Habib (Wits), Prof. D. Swart (NNMU)) and a deputy vice chancellor (Dr. L. Lange (UFS)). This panel represented the institutions currently participating in the Siyphumelela – we succeed programme aimed at integrating student data with institutional academic and student learning development projects/plans/programmes. I want to convey my gratitude to the Kresge Foundation (sponsors) for making Siyaphumelela a reality.
The keynote speaker, Tim Renick shared Georgia State University’s (GSU) practices and experiences using data to improve student completion rates amongst a diverse body of students. There was striking similarities between GSU’s context and South African universities, in terms of the changes in the student body profile and academic performance of students from previously disadvantaged groups. Using data analytics, GSU has managed to increase completion rates by 30% of the aforementioned groups within 5 years. GSU seems to have a number of projects geared at improving degree completion such as the impressive data dependent GPS Advising System, Major Maps, Freshman Learning Communities and strategic financial support. The improvements experienced by GSU are so remarkable that it is necessary to have further discussions with Prof. Renick to obtain a deeper understand and insight into strategies and processes involved in handling learner data.
In addition the panel of vice chancellors shared their perspectives of data analytics and multiple aspects related to teaching and learning development. It was made clear that data collection has always been part of university processes, however there has not been much strides in the purposeful collection, quality and effective use of the data. The 4 institutions NMMU, UFS, UP and Wits shared how they are implementing the Siyaphumelela projects. The highlight here was the UFS’s use of Student Engagement Surveys (SASSE, LSSE, BUSSE) to inform university student learning support/development strategy, and the innovative practices (such as the Career App.Tizer) from UP complimented by various High Impact projects. Wits University’s efforts in widening collaboration with other universities, namely University of Venda and University of Limpopo, are noble and can only lead to a deeper understanding and development of the learners entering our higher education institutions.
The paper presentations were informative with UP sharing some academic advising techniques such as the use of Faculty Student Advisers. It was clear that due to open sharing of practices, one presentation on student support and success had very similar concepts to those implemented by the UFS. I was delighted to get a clear definition of the differences between NBT and NSC by R. Prince & A. Cliff (UCT). NCS answers the question “Are you ready to leave high school”, whilst NBT answers “Are you ready to tackle university studies”. The current data presented, indicated a substantial gap between the two (NBT & NSC) academic aptitude measurement instruments. To a certain extent, this gap compliments the students engagement survey results presented by UFS’s L. Swart, F. Strydom, and M. Henn. The survey indicates that students believe that they are ready for university studies (probably due to their attained Matric Scores), however the NBT results indicate a contrasting image.
To end the day, there was a presentation from P. Prinsloo (UNISA) who clearly shared his pro-post positivist views using arguments based on the hoary debate between positivist and post-positivist paradigms. He also highlighted that university are also not prepared for the current student. This notion is also shared by those using data analytics and the data confirms it. Therefore it is wrong to assume that data analytics is blind to important aspects such as university preparedness for students.
Today, empirical evidence presented was based on data analytics, and researchers highlighted when to involve qualitative approaches. One thing for sure learning or data analytics is not as rigid as blinkered post-positivist portray it to be. Data analytics are being used by companies worldwide to understand human behavior and its about time we investigate how to best use them to influence academic success. GSU is succeeding and the Siyaphumelela partner universities are starting to reap the benefits, therefore continuous strategic use of learner data brings hope to the education crisis in South Africa.
For more detail about the conference, please visit the site http://www.siyaphumelela.org.za or follow the discussions on twitter at the hashtag #siyaza15