The Data Analytics for Student Success (DASS) team at the University of Cape Town (UCT) hosted the South African Association for Institutional Research (SAAIR) Learner Analytics Bootcamp recently. The event brought together more than 40 delegates from universities across South Africa as well as Namibia and Eswatini.
The three-day programme, which took place from 2 to 4 May was supported by the team behind the university’s DASS project, was themed “Learner Analytics in Curriculum Development or Improvement”. Under this banner, attendees explored the various opportunities that data presents for improving student experiences and support.
According to Liile Lerato Lekena, the president of the Southern Association for Institutional Research, the changes to teaching and learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have made the topic at hand especially pertinent.
“The theme of this bootcamp is particularly important in the current educational landscape. Learner analytics is an essential tool in education, providing valuable insights into how students learn, and how they can be better supported to achieve their academic goals,” she said in her welcome address.
“By analysing student data, institutions can identify trends and patterns to assess the effectiveness of their teaching methods.”
“By analysing student data, institutions can identify trends and patterns to assess the effectiveness of their teaching methods. This can then help them to develop personalised interventions to enhance student learning outcomes.
“We hope that the workshops presented by our expert speakers will equip participants with the knowledge and skills necessary to apply learner analytics in the development of effective teaching strategies and interventions to enhance student success.”
Analytics and ethics
Day one of the programme focused primarily on the value that student data can bring to curriculum development as well as the ethical duties that arise from collecting that data and using it for research purposes.
The first workshop of the programme was led by Dr Robert McLaughlin, the deputy chief legal counsel to the California-based Public Health Institute and the lead consultant on UCT’s Data Ethics Framework.
During the session, Dr McLaughlin covered various topics, including the risks of cyber-attacks and the potential harm that these events could cause to students’ privacy as well as the ongoing development of the data ethics framework at UCT. Particular attention was paid to the concerns of students regarding the collection and use of their data in the university context.
“Data analytics often involve collecting and analysing personal data, ensuring individual consent, and respecting their privacy rights is important. There may be challenges in obtaining informed consent, especially when dealing with large-scale datasets or secondary data sources,” McLaughlin said.
Workshop two, which was presented by the team lead in AI and machine learning (ML) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Innocent Mamvura, explored the basics of learning analytics, including data analysis and visualisation.
Data for decisions and development
In her session, Professor Michelle Kuttel from UCT’s Department of Computer Science dove into the principles for creating effective data visualisations. During her presentation, Professor Kuttel noted how visual thinking can help educators communicate complex information more effectively.
Associate Professor Randhir Rawatlal from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Engineering, and Ashton Maherry, programme specialist of the South African Institute of Distance Education Programme, presented a framework intended to ease the access to data science and ML for institutional research.
“The bootcamp was a resounding success, providing an informative, transformative, and enriching learning experience.”
Delegates were able to use the AutoScholar AIRTime, portal. This platform facilitates three aspects of access: availability of high-performance computing infrastructure; secure connection to a large set of data; and the ability to use sophisticated data science and ML algorithms without needing to write a code. Participants were able to engage with a set of institutional data that includes tens of millions of records available for analysis.
The programme was rounded out by a panel discussion that focused on how data can be used to tell stories. Mamaili Mamaila from the news visualisation website The Outlier provided attendees with an introduction to data storytelling, while the deputy director of UCT’s Academic Development Programme, Dr Riashna Sithaldeen, shared insights on data and the student voice.
The Data Analytics for Student Success and the Know Your Course/Students
DASS is a collaboration between UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS) and Institutional Planning Department, with additional involvement from the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Education Development Unit, and staff from the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment.
At its inception in 2020, DASS was led by Prof Suellen Shay. Stephen Marquard took over project leadership in October 2020. The project is now co-managed with the Siyaphumelela initiative, which is led by Dr Sithaldeen. The team collaboratively developed the Know Your Course/Students reports. These reports provide course conveners with comprehensive insights into the students, the course’s historical achievements, and valuable diagnostic information. By including a section on the ‘achievement gap’, the reports promote equity and enable course conveners to address disparities among students based on various factors. During the bootcamp, the DASS team and Centre for Education Assessment both presented on the Know Your Course/Students reports. The reports highlight the strength and significance of interdepartmental collaboration within the university to support teaching and learning.
“The bootcamp was a resounding success, providing an informative, transformative, and enriching learning experience,” said Bradley Khumalo, a business intelligence analyst at the University of the Western Cape.
“The interactions extended beyond mere opinion-sharing, encompassing the exchange of best practices and experiences, bridging the gap between those technically proficient in learner analytics and administrative personnel.
“At the heart of all discussions was the student, as all stakeholders appreciated that behind the data were students and the various factors influencing their outcomes.
“Overall, I believe, the Learner Analytics Bootcamp proved to be an invaluable resource for educators and professionals seeking to harness the potential of data analytics in higher institutions.”
Esethu Mahlumba, a Master’s student at UCT, said: “The workshop was vital for my own knowledge retention. Learner analytics are nowhere near my academic field, but after the workshop, my perspective and understanding of the use of data to explain students’ experiences, needs, and performance were enhanced for the better.”
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