Education institutions use data to predict student performance

Big data enables lecturers to analyse a student's journey by predicting their chances of success.
Big data enables lecturers to analyse a student's journey by predicting their chances of success.

The relationship between big data and higher education institutions is synonymous with a 'blind date' between two individuals. While educational institutions are excited to experiment with big data, there are fears, curiosity and security risks associated with the handling of data.

This is according to Paul Prinsloo, research professor at the University of SA (Unisa), speaking yesterday at the Vaal University of Technology's Big Data Symposium in Vereeniging.

Discussing the value of big data analytics for higher education institutions, Prinsloo compared the relationship between the two as a 'blind date', saying lecturers are expected to successfully navigate through certain challenges to derive the true value of data.

"As institutions of higher learning adopt digital tools and move their courses online, they are now expected to do much more with the data they collect. From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate. The blind date between the two is full of fears, curiosity, and excitement, as tertiary institutions never know what they're in for: having to deal with vast amounts of data daily."

Higher education institutions source vast amounts of data from educational apps, software and visualisation tools, and online portals among others, meaning they are constantly dealing with data which they are expected to harvest, analyse and store, continues Prinsloo.

"We have increasing commercialisation of data in SA where we have vendors coming in, selling solutions such as software, educational tools and apps to local universities. Through these solutions educational institutions are able to track every movement of the student.

"This data is able to tell us what time the students logged onto their online portals; it also analyses their performance in exams; and it tracks which part of the campus they are in at any given moment."

Furthermore, Prinsloo pointed out that through this data, lecturers are able to analyse the students' journey by predicting the student's chances of success and determine how well they will perform in future.

"Through data analysis we are able to predict the future performance of a student and this enables us to advise them accordingly when they are under performing, for instance we are able to say to them: 'You can no longer take this course , however we can prescribe something else for you.' Student data is used to diagnose and to intervene in student matters, enabling us to better understand the student and to prescribe a more suitable course."

E-learning complexities

While experts agree that e-learning has the potential to play a pivotal role in the transformation of the delivery of quality education globally, SA continues to lag behind developed economies in the effective implementation of e-learning.

Myles Thies, director of digital learning services provider Eiffel Corp, explained that lecturers are dealing with an array of digital complexities brought about by e-learning.

"There is a misconception that just because a lecturer is good at teaching, they will also be good at integrating technology to impart their knowledge, but that's not always the case. We run information and communications technology workshops for lecturers and we often find that a lecturer who has been mastering his work for 30 years suddenly faces challenges when they are expected to use technology in the classroom.

"The same goes for using data analytics, there is the assumption that you just put on a switch and you will automatically derive value from data. Some lecturers think there will be less work for them to do, when they integrate data analytics but it's not always the case."

According to an e-learning report conducted by Microsoft SA, while local educators see themselves as highly tech-proficient; most lack proper training to understand and implement the integration of technology into the way they teach.

Alanna Riley, senior consultant, teaching and learning centre at the University of Fort Hare explains: There is the assumption that classroom courses can be moved from the classroom to online platforms without any problems. That's not possible, because one size doesn't fit all students. We are dealing with students who have a variety of silent disabilities like adult attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, and that's something that still has to be addressed. We are also dealing with students from deep rural SA who have never had access to technology and now they're expected to use it every day in the classroom. That poses many challenges for them."

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