7 ways universities can make an impact with data
By JY Pook November 11, 2014
- Those that present data clearly can better engage with their communities
- But there are challenges in the use of data in universities
UNIVERSITIES and educational institutions are constantly looking to fulfill their mission of educating their communities. They often need to communicate to external stakeholders the data around that mission, such as the number of graduates, student population make-up, and how finances are managed.
In this era of larger data sets and disparate data sources, this can be especially challenging. However, institutions that have been able to present important data clearly have been able to tell their stories better and as a result, engage with their communities in a more meaningful way.
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Here are seven ways that higher education institutions can use data analytics and data visualisation, while making sure their data is up to date, as well as appropriately private and secure.
1) Tracking enrolment trends
Enrolment numbers are one of the most important types of data at a university. Enrolment data is the key to successful planning and recruitment, and it can tell you trends such as student demographic and profile changes.
An example of this is when Oxford University presented its enrolment data online. With the help of data visualisation tools, the university found that the number of students enrolling in postgraduate studies has been rising while those signing up for undergraduate studies has remained relatively flat.
Tracking enrolment trends can help students, faculty and staff understand what are often fast-changing communities. Using this information, universities can see the trends in the popularity of their courses and scale up or down on spaces to suit the demand.
2) Create an interactive University Factbook
Prospective students and their parents often use data about tuition, class sizes, graduation rates and other metrics to decide whether to apply to a school. Providing this data in an engaging and visual manner on the college’s website can make it easier for prospective students and their families understand the university’s programmes, and make informed choices.
For instance, visitors to Oxford University’s (pic above) website can interact with the data presented, slicing it by course type, gender, fee status, domicile, and nationality.
Cornell University, on the other hand, puts all these information on its Facebook page, allowing anyone interested to find information about freshman class profiles, graduation, faculty and more.
3) Communicate survey results
Almost every university conducts surveys to better understand its communities and students. Because of this, many institutions also have extensive survey data that they need to analyse.
These surveys can result in large data sets, consisting of thousands of rows of data, and can be challenging to work with when using simple spreadsheet software.
University staff can tap on easy-to-use data visualisation tools. These tools can empower them to ask the right questions, find answers, and uncover hidden trends from the data.
For instance, a school may be interested in incoming students’ attitudes towards grades and majors, or administrators may want to follow graduating students’ satisfaction with their educational experience and job search opportunities.
With the right data visualisation tools, school staff can find answers these questions by looking in-depth into survey results. They may even use these findings to improve the course curriculum or use a different style of assessments that will better suit the course.
4) Analyse space usage
Universities need to properly plan the use of physical space to function effectively. School administrations often have to plan classes and maintain emergency plans, for instance.
To save on energy costs, many institutions use spatial analysis to track and reduce energy usage too. Additionally, spatial analysis is necessary for planning for future growth and accommodating changing needs.
One useful tip is to use data overlaid on a map. This can be an invaluable tool when planning new uses for specific space on campus.
Purdue University, in the United States, uses this to visualise and track where the majority of students are on campus in the day over a number of academic periods.
5) Benchmark against peer institutions
Universities can also use data analytics to benchmark themselves against peer institutions. Data such as test scores, graduation rates and scholarships can be compared among educational institutions.
This allows universities to better understand where they stand in comparison with their peers, and in what areas they can make improvements.
The data comparison also serves to offer a transparent view for prospective and current students regarding where the schools stand in academic performance, course fees, etc.
6) Show fiscal responsibility
Students, parents and donors are often interested in how well universities are managing their money. This has become even more important in a time when tuition fees have been on the rise.
While sharing profit-and-loss statements is helpful, data visualisation can often tell a fuller story. Universities can help stakeholders better understand the information using impactful data visualisation as compared with showing sheets of profit and loss data.
7) Improve communication
Universities are filled with knowledge workers who thrive on sharing data, ideas and information. Sharing of information internally helps build a culture of collaboration.
When information is shared in an easily understandable and transparent manner, it helps to build trust and for the chance of conflict is reduced.
It also helps for different departments or teams to work off a common baseline of data. This way, staff members are able to better understand the challenges that other teams face, and there is an added sense of working together towards a common solution.
Data visualisation tools are ideal for such open collaboration. Many of these tools allow for better data sharing using dashboards, servers and the Internet. They also help to minimise errors and enhance collaborative interaction among users.
There are, however, challenges in the use of data in universities. One obvious challenge is in the large amount of data, often in multiple formats, coming from different sources in the academic environment.
Very often, there is data from enrolment systems, course management systems, surveys, and many more sources. It is, therefore, important that university users opt for a data analytics or visualisation tool that can access multiple data sources and interpret data in different formats.
Another key consideration is that universities need to work with data that is constantly being updated. For instance, data like test scores, fund management numbers, and student population is constantly changing.
University staff need to be working with the latest data for best informed decision making. The ideal situation is to work with analytic tools that allow for automatic extract and refresh of data with direct connection to data sources.
Finally, data security and information privacy are of utmost importance. Information such as faculty wages and individual student profiles need to be kept confidential.
Data analytic tools should come with security functions like administrator assignments and user authentication. Authorised users can then choose to keep sensitive data secure and publish only data that is suitable for public consumption.
JY Pook is Asia Pacific vice president at Tableau Software.
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