What happens when the dial turns red?

Overall view of the Mission Control Center (MCC), Houston, Texas, during the Gemini 5 flight. Note the screen at the front of the MCC which is used to track the progress of the Gemini spacecraft.
View of scientists working with dashboards at the Mission Control Centre Houston, Texas, during the Gemini 5 flight in the 1960s.
When the data shows that a student is struggling, how should universities respond? Brian Hipkin issues a plea to academics and their professional services colleagues to work together more to understand the student lifestyle from the student’s perspective.

Recently I have been wading, yes wading, through more than a hundred university agreements with the Office of Fair Access for the 2017 -18 academic year.

I know that I should get out more but it was an enlightening experience. For they nearly all revealed a couple of very interesting trends.

Firstly, almost everyone was creating / reviving / enhancing systems of personal tutoring and secondly, everyone was developing or already using a data dashboard. Many were inventing their own, some were using third party systems and others were part of wider HEFCE / Jisc development schemes.

Secondly, running through all of these agreements – like lettering through a stick of higher education rock – was a common assumption that data + tutor = intervention = improved outcomes. Given that the vast majority of the agreements were very light on specifics and heavy on tweaks of the ‘status quo’, one could be forgiven for hailing the arrival of the ‘holy grail’ of student success. And well it might be.

Data and dashboards

However, we should know that things are never that simple in HE. Data is increasingly being gathered from a number of triggers: attendance, use of library, VLEs, accessing bursary funds, e-books, physical access systems, etc. It is being fed into increasingly sophisticated dashboards that are becoming the core around which new systems of personal tutoring are being built.

These new breed of tutors have to be unafraid of ‘tech’, comfortable with data, have a set of ‘coaching’ skills and be prepared to ‘intervene’ in their students lives when they see it is necessary – i.e. when the dial on the student’s dashboard turns red.

But hang on a minute aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Where are these new tutors coming from? Aren’t they meant to be focusing on being great teachers for TEF and researchers for REF? And who exactly is going to train them? Most importantly of all, who paints the red line on the dial and where do they put it?

The one thing that the exponential growth of data has shown or at least should show is that there are multiple reasons why some students succeed – whatever that may mean – and others drop out, or underachieve. Whilst it is great that the breadth of data being captured has increased outside of lecture and seminar rooms and will continue to do so, trying to create a predictive algorithm for an individual student from datasets alone will prove elusive. Students are individually programmed Enigma machines.

Recruiting tutors

How far can we go along the predictive path that will get us closer to placing that red line on the dashboard in the ‘right’ place? I would suggest that we first need to overcome a number of in-built obstacles within our own institutions. My plea is, I hope, timely as everyone rushes headlong towards the unqualified ‘good’ of dashboards and tutors who use them.

There is also the question of where are we going to recruit the tutors from. Well, from academics of course. That’s what in part they are there for. They are closest to the students, we have a historical model of those that teach on a degree acting as tutors for their students, there are more of them and their managers have the levers of ‘allowances’ to use to try to create the tutoring ‘space’. On a simple practical level, they tend to have offices where student can go and find them.

But please pause before you rush headlong into the ‘academic as personal tutor’ model. As someone who spent a couple of decades as an academic, it is important to understand that in the academic mind set and daily experience, services that exist to support and advise students exist as a hazy ‘other’. This ‘other’ is most often recognised as being ‘student services’, but if pressed most academics would probably only be able to name one service, my bet would be that would be ‘counselling’. This is not a critique of my academic colleagues, merely the recognition of the narrowing effects of the pressures of being a modern day academic.

As the annual survey from AMOSSHE (the student services organisation) demonstrates, student services today cover up sometimes more than fifteen discrete areas including, of course, counselling.

Arranging interventions

So the first step, if the redline on the dashboard is going to be a prompt to pull the levers of intervention, those arranging intervention have to (a) know what is available (b) know that it is appropriate. One of the most common moans that my student services colleagues have is that tutors refer, with the best will in the world, students to the wrong place for the right, and sometimes wrong, reason.

It will take more than a 20 minute talk from student services during the induction of new staff to overcome decades of silos and stereotyping, on both side of the wall. Understanding the student lifecycle from the student’s perspective will quickly demonstrate that students are blissfully unaware of the internal divisions and lack of mutual awareness that existing within our universities.

But it not all one-way traffic. Professional services staff should be the one to break the ice and ask their academic colleagues for the first dance.

Brian Hipkin
CEO and founder of ReFRAME HE Consultancy Ltd