We call it data – students call it life

We call it data students call it life

Big data will back up the new breed of personal tutors in universities. But Brian Hipkin worries that relying on statistics without a meaningful human context will create a support system that will ultimately fail students.

Back in the late ’90s as Dean of Students at Middlesex University, I abolished the existing system of personal tutors (PTs). It was simply not working. It had locked itself into concerns about systems of allocating students to staff, whether or not office hours were being displayed (it was pre-digital) and how to track attendance. There was seemingly no time left for consideration of what went on once the right student found the right door at the right time – and found their tutor inside.

It is intriguing to me then, that at a point when research is revealing the impact of the complexity of our students’ lives outside the learning environment on what happens inside the classroom, we are about to see a massive revival of the personal tutoring system.

But why has this started to happen now?

Will digital tools really be able to measure impact?

Reading through the 2017-18 agreements that almost every university in England has to make with the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) in order to be able to charge £9,000 fees per year, I was struck by two facts. Firstly, that almost all were setting up/revitalising their personal tutoring systems and secondly that they intend to equip their PTs with data and most typically in the form of a data-driven dashboard. These are to be used to monitor students’ progress and to intervene where required.

So the new PT will have the tools to see and to measure the impact that the complexity of modern life has on students’ lives at university. Or is this a digital illusion?

I suspect that the revitalisation of the personal tutoring system in the UK has come about via external rather than internal pressures. The move to £9,000 fees, the lifting of the cap on student numbers, retention concerns, all of which have gone until recently under the codename ‘The Student Experience’. If these are the pressures to revitalise PT, then where does the data part of the data-driven personal tutor come from?

Well, as someone who has been involved in the growth of edtech for many years, I believe it has come about accidentally and largely from systems developed and ‘owned’ by third-parties. Visa checks have lead to attendance monitoring data, VLEs now give us module-level interaction data, library systems give use physical usage of materials. All of these have become proxies for student ‘engagement’.

Data empowerment leads to narrowness of vision

Over the past few years these datasets have been joined by data-generating e-book platforms, cashless bursary management systems and a growing number of retention-led edtech innovations. There are a number of third-party commercial ‘plug and play’ systems into which you can plug your data flows from disparate sources in order to create the dashboard that the new breed of data-empowered PTs will use.

And yet all of this data empowerment of the personal tutor can so easily lead to narrowness of vision and paupacy of interventions. Some would say that, ‘data is data is data and it is neutral’ and so is the best bet for measuring engagement and taking actions to boost retention and academic success.

Sorry but it is not.

The ‘red’ action trigger line on the dashboard on personal tutors’ screens has to be created, in other words, when do you start to worry? Most dashboards that look at these proxies for engagement will light up when there is an absence of data indicating that a student has not done something. These are ‘black holes’ into which misinterpretation and an absence of any complete picture could lead to inappropriate or ineffective interventions.

So what could help?

Over the last decade the skills and understanding of student support services have grown. I have witnessed this during my time as vice-chair of AMOSSHE (the student services organisation). Although these services are far from perfect they do have the capability to contextualise data and have also become experts in the ‘consequences’ of issues affecting students such as mental health, debt and family issues.

Today these issues are affecting the majority not the minority of students.

If the sector were to develop systems of data-empowered personal tutors that are separated from large chunks of student-centred information, they would fail to deliver what they set out to achieve.

However, with the right input of insights and expertise from student support professionals, this could be the best opportunity in a decade to develop a system of personal tutoring that has students at the centre of its very being.

Read more: Show me the data: making analytics work for you

Brian Hipkin
CEO and founder of ReFRAME HE Consultancy Ltd