Using Data to Improve Student Retention: More Questions than Answers?

The “Issues around Using Data to Improve Student Retention” session at the JISC CETIS Conference 2012 examined some of the issues around using data to predict students at risk of failure and provide some examples of possible solutions to ensure that the institution does not fail such students.

The session was divided into five mini-sessions run by some of the JISC Relationship Management Programme projects. Here is an overview of some of the solutions being trialled by the projects and the challenges they face.

Loughborough University’s Pedestal for Progression project is using Co-Tutor to collect attendance data. Student attendance at lectures and personal tutor meetings is recorded, so it’s possible to see at a glance whether a student is turning up or if they dislike Monday mornings. The system gives automatic flags and provides a personal tutor with a red, amber or green visual of attendance (traffic lighting). As a result of introducing registers, attendance has gone up from 65.54% in 2004/5 to 70.26% in 2010/11.

Roehampton University’s fulCRM project is being run in parallel with attendance data recording within the Psychology Department. Fingerprint readers have been installed in all lecture theatres to record student attendance. Although there have been debates by staff about the “big brother” aspects of this approach, it would appear that students aree less worried as many are already used to doing this in school and in any case, fingerprint attendance seems to make students think that it (and they) really count and that someone is taking an interest in them. As the Department is fairly small, data was being kept on an Excel spreadsheet and a traffic light system used. The fulCRM project is now in the process of pulling automated data feeds from the attendance monitoring system into a student performance module.

Using a traffic light system, 18 students were identified as “red” just after the first semester (mostly male or part-time students with personal problems, or who had to travel long distances, etc) so extra support was put in for these students. In 2010, 8.3% of at risk students terminated and 19.8% didn’t have enough credits to go to Year 2. In 2011, since the traffic lighting system was put in place, this was reduced to 5.2% of at risk students terminating and 9.34% without enough credits to go on to Year 2. Of the 19 students with red flags, 16 have now gone on to Year 2 following retakes and extra support (only 3 actually left). In the past, a lot of students would have just drifted off course.

During the course of their project, the Southampton Student Dashboard at the University of Southampton project team has met with resistance from data owners, service providers, ethics authorities and faculty administrators, who cite a number of reasons why various types of data (from photos to student grades) can’t be used. They currently have a simple dashboard that shows picture of tutees, directory info, whether coursework has been handed in, and attendance. This particularly helps staff who need to let the Borders Agency know that foreign students have been seen and have attended classes. However, most information isn’t available in the rest of the University because of data protection, which is seen as protecting staff from doing any work or taking any risks.

The University of Derby’s SETL (Student Engagement Traffic Lighting) project is also using a traffic lighting approach and has been looking at some of the softer areas off engagement analytics. The team has produced a dartboard diagram showing the primary (e.g. attendance monitoring), secondary (e.g. sickness) and tertiary (e.g. student complaints) indicators of risk. They have also produced a “Withdrawal Calendar” to ascertain whether there are any key dates for withdrawal – there are. At Derby, a Progress Board meets twice a year to decide whether students are meeting the academic requirements and can progress on their course. These key times when students are likely to withdraw.

The ESCAPES (Enhancing Student Centred Administration for Placement ExperienceS) project at the University of Nottingham is exploring how an ePortfolio can enhance student engagement whilst students are on placement. Previous project work has already shown that both students on placement and staff found that ePortfolio tools, such as Mahara, have helped them to keep in touch with each other. Students have also valued the feedback aspect as it helps them to feel more motivated.

Some of the challenges, questions, and issues that have arisen during these projects can be grouped into the following areas:


  • Using the relationship management systems, such as Co-Tutor, may result in a bigger workload for staff, which may then manifest as a lack of engagement with the system.
  • There may not be any integration with other systems, such as e-mail, so staff have to copy and paste any e-mail from students into the system, or it may be difficult to exchange data between systems.
  • Not all data may be captured electronically but may still be paper-based.
  • It can be expensive to roll out pilot data monitoring solutions across the whole institution.

Human Aspects

  • Where interactions are recorded, such as personal tutor meetings, staff may feel that they have less freedom about where that interaction takes place, i.e. it may now have to take place in the tutor’s office rather than a neutral space such as a café.
  • Institutions need to make it clear to students that such systems are there to help them.
  • Should students be forced to attend classes?
  • The behaviour of departments who hold such data can be difficult. Data owners may be distributed. People hold their data very close to their chests and don’t want to share. Perhaps the most difficult bit is managing the soft human interface.

Data Privacy/Ethics

  • Who should be allowed to see staff data?
  • Who monitors the monitors?
  • Can use of data in this way be seen as “Big Brotherish”?
  • How quickly should staff intervene if a student is “red-flagged”?
  • Is it ethical to pre-load a system with at-risk demographics, e.g. part-time, male students?
  • What directory information should be available to everyone on a university intranet? Should photos be included (it can be useful for staff to add a name to a face)? What information shouldn’t be included?
  • Should grade history be confidential?
  • Students already share their data informally on Facebook, so why should the institution get involved?
  • Is it OK to use student data for research?
  • Who are the stakeholders involved in holding the data? What about contracts with work based learning students?
  • Sensitive handling of data and how it’s being collected is necessary.
  • Who should access what data? Should whoever needs the data be able to access it? What is legitimate? Data access needs to be considered before any opt-in box is checked. Explicit permission is needed from the student. Should anyone have access to depersonalised data as long as it’s properly depersonalised?
  • What about control of access for student? Student might be overwhelmed with information if everyone has access to the student’s data.
  • What about access by parents or other interested parties?
  • What is the “right data” to collect and analyse? For example, a student might have patchy attendance but may interact very well with the tutor and have a good assessment. Whoever acts on the data provided needs to know the student well.
  • What are the softer engagement analytics? What aspects of the student lifecycle can be harnessed? How do we capture this soft data? It needs to be about the social life as well as the academic life.
  • How early do we need the data and what would those data sources be? The data might come too late, i.e. the predisposing factors may already be in place before the student starts.

The session brought a lot of issues to light, along with some real privacy/ethical concerns, but it also highlighted that even a small change (such as keeping a register) can make a difference to student retention. However, we need to remember that students are not just collections of bits and bytes to be analysed and examined for trends. We are human with all the foibles, idiosyncrasies and circumstances that make us unique.

Accessibility of e-Textbook Readers

Last night, I sat in on an EASI (Equal Access to Softtware and Information) webinar about the accessibility of e-textbook readers by Ken Petri from Ohio State University. It seems as though the device designers are really trying hard to get it right, although there’s still some way to go.

Photo of a paperback book.

After a short introduction to the legal context (Advocates for the Blind sued Arizona State University over their use of Kindle resulting in Amazon making changes to its software), Ken gave an overview of the current e-book formats on offer, which are mostly based on XML (eXtensible Meta-Language):

  • PDF (Portable Document Format) – common, but mostly inaccessible unless tagged correctly.
  • MOBI (Adobe).
  • AZW (Amazon) – ePub-like format for the Kindle, but lacks its rich structure.
  • XPS (XML Paper Specification) – designed to look like the original paper copy; only used by Blio.
  • DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) – accessible standard for digital talking books; not much control over formatting.
  • ePub v3 – read by most readers (except Kindle); has a lot of DAISY’s accessibility features; rich formatting control, including video/audio embedding; full support for MathML (although no readers can read it just yet). It’s basically XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language) with super styling, i.e. CSS3 (Cascading StyleSheets) with SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and JavaScript.

He then followed this with an overview of e-book reader accessibility:

  • Kindle – has a free accessibility plug-in for PC; uses its own text-to-speech engine, so won’t work with screenreaders; not possible to copy and paste text; the finest grain of movement through the book is sentence by sentence; allows synching of different platforms so notes made using Kindle on the iPad can also be viewed on a PC. (Apparently it’s very easy to bypass the digital rights management and convert both MOBI (Adobe) and AZW (Kindle) formats to ePub and read the book on another device!)
  • iBooks 2 (Textbooks) on iPad – proprietary version of ePub v3, although authoring software, iBooks Author, is free; good for embedded graphics; can only be used on the iPad, not on the iPhone/iPod nor any other device; limited textbooks in the iBooks Store; possible to read ePub books using iBooks 2, but the fine-grained reading experience isn’t there; words highlighted as played; full typographic control (e.g. enlargeable text, high contrast, etc).
  • Blio – has incremental zoom for focussing on a small section of text and back out again.
  • ReadHear – a downloadable app for Mac or PC; uses DAISY; accessible maths equations; words highlighted as played; full typographic control (e.g. enlargeable text, high contrast, etc); rich screen reader access (for DAISY books only).
  • NookStudy – cross-referencing; synchronised highlighting for comparison purposes, where several books (or different pages of the same book) can be open at the same time; cut and paste; look-up using Wolfram Alpha.

For further information, see Ken Petri’s e-Book Reader Accessibility and Comparison Matrix (under development).

Although the presentation focussed on the accessibility of readers rather than on the content, some mention was made of authoring tools. For example, Calibre is a free, open-source tool that will convert across formats using RTF (Rich Text Format), e.g. from Word to DAISY (although it doesn’t do MathML). There is also a plugin for creating DAISY books from Word itself.

To sum up the importance of e-textbooks, Ken’s presentation included a quote from Eve Hill, Senior Counsellor to the Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice:

“In education, the current transition from print materials to digital materials creates and incredible opportunity for people with print disabilities to finally use the same products as their peers and to gain the same benefits as their peers who do not have disabilities.”

Of course, there are negatives, such as affordability of devices, proprietary formats, limited storage capabilities on some readers, possible short shelf-life as device OS’ (Operating Systems) move on, etc; and authors and publishers still need to be made aware that they need to make the content accessible. However, I think e-textbooks have much to offer everyone, not least the opportunity to present information in an interactive and engaging way in a format that almost everyone can access.

Crowdsourcing to Fix the Web

Well.. not the whole web, obviously, but some of the inaccessible bits. Fix The Web is a site which encourages people with disabilities to report any accessibility problems they have with a website. Volunteers then take these problems up with the website owners.

It is not intended to make web developers lazy (“I’ll wait until Fix the Web volunteers tell me what I need to do”) but rather to highlight the issues faced by people with disabilities, particularly as most web developers are not accessibility experts and most people with disabilities are not web developers.

Using a middleman (or woman) to act as an interface between people with disabilities, who experience problems with inaccessible websites, and the web developers themselves could help make the web a better place for everyone and act as an informal means of educating developers about the importance of accessibility.

iPad Accessibility

I’ve just had a very quick look at the Apple’s latest and much awaited offering – the iPad. I say, a “quick look”, because I haven’t yet been able to wrestle it from the grasp of its new owner. However, I did manage to request a demo of the accessibility features.

How can something so visual, which relies on accurate touch, be made accessible? The form factor has a lot to do with it. The iPad is much larger than the iPod Touch and iPhone (not quite a sheet of A4) so Apple has more room to play with, which helps. The extra real estate means icons for the apps can be selected with even the largest or most arthritic of fingers unlike the iPod Touch or iPhone, which require almost pianistic dexterity.

There are accessibility settings for text-to-speech and magnification, although you’d probably need someone to set the settings on first use. This changes the gestures required to use the device, e.g. for magnification a three-finger swipe will increase the size, etc. But for me, the way the device works for visually impaired people really caught my attention. By selecting the Voice Over (text-to-speech) setting, every time the user touches the screen anywhere, a box highlights the text and the name of the app is read out. The required app can be selected by tapping. This means that visually impaired users can still navigate and select the various apps on what looks like a completely visual interface.

The iPad comes with a free e-book – Winnie the Pooh – and I was intrigued to see how this would be handled. The book has images and I was pleasantly surprised to hear them described. The descriptions were far more descriptive than alt text. The image of Pooh sitting outside his house was charmingly described, even down to the “childish writing” of the sign saying “Mr Sanders”. OK – I guess it’s down to the publishers of e-books to ensure that their books are accessible (and also to the app developers), but it does show what can be done.

These comments have only been made on the briefest of looks at the iPad and there will no doubt be some accessibility “gotchas”, but I think the size of the device has made a huge difference to the way in which accessibility can be handled.

So now, I’m going to see if I can distract the iPad’s new owner so I can have another quick look, but unless It’s by something equally as innovative, I don’t think I’ll have much of a chance!

Mozilla Labs Design Challenge 2009: Re-inventing Tabs

Whilst this blog generally focusses on all things accessible, this design challenge from Mozilla Labs caught my eye. Sometimes ensuring an application is accessible can be considered as a hindrance rather than an opportunity to show off design skills and develop new ways of working. However, good design can provide benefits to many users, not just those with disabilities.

One of the aims of the Mozilla Labs Design Challenge is to inspire future design directions for Firefox, the Mozilla project, and the Web as a whole. New ideas and mockups for the future of the Web are invited from designers, students and design-focused people. The focus is on finding creative solutions to the question: “Reinventing Tabs in the Browser – How can we create, navigate and manage multiple web sites within the same browser instance?”

The Challenge website states: “Today, 20+ parallel sessions are quite common; the browser is more of an operating system than a data display application; we use it to manage the web as a shared hard drive. However, if you have more than seven or eight tabs open they become pretty much useless. And tabs don’t work well if you use them with heterogeneous information. They’re a good solution to keep the screen tidy for the moment. And that’s just what they should continue doing”.

All you need to is create a mockup of your proposed solution in any format – from a napkin drawing, to a wireframe, to a polished graphic – and create a short video presenting the mockup, explaining your idea and how it works. The submission deadline is 21st June 2009.

Good luck!

AccessApps Wins Best Accessibility Solution Award

Those of you who attended last week’s JISC CETIS Accessibility SIG meeting and saw Craig Mill (from JISC RSC Scotland North and East) demonstrate the AccessApps toolset will be pleased to hear that it has won the Best Accessibility Solution award at the IMS Global Conference in Barcelona.

JISC describes AccessApps in their news story as “a collection of open source and freeware portable applications – all running from a USB stick and designed to give learners the tools they need to experience learning in the way that suits
them, when they need it”.

It was great to see how customisable the toolset can be and for those of you who couldn’t make it, I’m just in the process of writing up my notes from last week’s meeting. They should be ready in the next day or so.

Congratulations to Craig and the AccessApps team!

Technological Literacy: Kit-Kats Strapped to the Back of iPods

As I write, the online JISC Innovating e-Learning 2008 Conference “Learning in a Digital Age – Are We Prepared?” is in full swing.  I’ve been tracking the discussions in the “Listening to Learners” theme, which involved two presentations – one by E.A. Draffen on the issues arising from the LexDIS project and one by Malcolm Ryan giving selected findings from SEEL (Student Experience of e-Learning Laboratory) project.

The presentations arrived at the following conclusions:
* Not all students are digital natives (age is not necessarily a barrier, often it is the technology itself or the learning curve/time required);
* Using technology for its own sake (or because it’s “cool”) does not necessarily enhance the learning experience;
* Not all students want their learning to take place online – face-to-face interaction may be more suitable for some students and/or learning situations, and traditional (i.e. not electronic) resources are still preferred by many students;
* Students generally expect their tutors to be competent technology users and may have a negative experience if this is not the case;
* Not all tutors are motivated or able to use the technology (even if students expect them to be experts in this area);
* Technology used in the classroom, online, and socially is growing so quickly that it is often difficult for staff (and students) to keep up;
* Whilst some disabled students are more technologically adept and willing to experiment to get the technology to work in the way they need, there is often a time or financial cost, which can produce barriers.

The discussions which followed on from these presentations confirmed many of these findings and my favourite quote of the day came from E.A. Draffen, when she talked about the difficulties in cascading technology information to teaching staff: “Kit-Kats strapped to the back of iPods just don’t do it with staff sometimes”. E.A. was referring to the difficulty in getting staff to attend CPD (Continuing Professional Development) workshops on using technology.  Many staff just can’t afford the time to attend such workshops or may not even be technologically engaged.  Like students, teaching staff need to know what technologies are available to them, how they can be used (officially and unofficially), and have the time and motivation to explore those technologies. One counter-argument which came out of the discussions was that tutors should concentrate on helping students to understand their particular subject area, be it art or zoology, rather than have to be learning technologists as well.  However, if educational institutions generally expect their students (and staff) to be literate (i.e. be able to read and write), perhaps it is not unfeasible to expect them to be technologically literate as well?

The unpopularity of VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) was also discussed and one delegate (a postgraduate student) suggested that if VLEs were designed by students that they might look more like PLEs (Personal Learning Environments). The importance of personalisation of the learning experience and flexibility in course design and delivery looks likely to become even higher as students (or “customers”) demand more value as fees increase. E-learning is not the be all and end all, and in any case, not all students want, or even are able, to engage with the technology.

So, although the discussions in this strand did not really throw up anything new, perhaps the fact that the same old issues and barriers to e-learning still exist is rather worrying. Online and learning technology is moving at a much faster rate than most of us can keep up with. For many students (not just those with disabilities) and even staff, this can be a real barrier to effective learning (and teaching).  Is there a solution? We can’t slow down the rate of technological innovation and there are only so many hours in a day. Perhaps all we can do is muddle through as best we can, being more tolerant of those staff and students who have difficulties with using technology, and to continue to help each other to find innovative solutions to problems. Talking about the same old issues acknowledges that they are still there, but it also gives people the chance to discuss and disseminate the many different workarounds they have found. Whilst these issues are frustrating and challenging, perhaps they also make us more inventive.

Technology and Control: the Designer v. the User

Chapter Two: Framing Conversations about Technology” of “Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart” by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day looks at the differing views of technology from the dystopic to the utopic.  The authors make some interesting comparisons between the technology we have now with the technology of the recent past, as well as some very interesting comments.

Nardi and O’Day have noticed that although the advance of technology is seen as inevitable, people do not critically evaluate the technologies they use, even though they have been designed and chosen by people.  In other words, we accept the technology that is placed before us but we forget that we have a choice as to the type of technology we actually use and the way in which we use it.

The authors compare the differing views of Nicholas Negroponte (technophile and director of the MIT Media Lab) and Clifford Stoll, author of “Silicon’s Snake Oil”, programmer and astronomer.  Interestingly, although their views are remarkably different (one utopic, the other dystopic), they both agree that “the way technology is designed and used is beyond the control of the people who are not technology experts” (Nardi & O’Day).

Nevertheless, people often use technology in ways that are completely different from the way in which the designer intended. For example, Johnny Chung Lee has developed some interesting and unusual uses for the Nintendo Wii controller.  Thinking out of the box can bring control back to the user and it’s probably fair to say that we all (from expert users to newbies) use the technology we have in ways which weren’t even considered by designers, even if it’s just using a CD as a coaster for a coffee mug.

So although technology (hardware and software) designers may only have a limited perspective on the way in which they expect their technology to be used, once it is out in the public domain, alternative uses or ways of working will often be developed and exploited.