College collecting more data than ever before, but it’s not all about the numbers - Simon Earp

Data has never played such an important role in our lives. From the daily statistical updates on the news, Professor Chris Whitty’s ‘next slide please’ or the often-heard phrase ‘we’ll be led by the data’, our TV screens have been filled with numbers about the pandemic for 18 months.
Simon Earp, Vice Principal Performance and Improvement, West Lothian CollegeSimon Earp, Vice Principal Performance and Improvement, West Lothian College
Simon Earp, Vice Principal Performance and Improvement, West Lothian College

Colleges have collected, compiled and reported on student data for many years. This is used by government to report on our performance. In recent times we have realised the enormous value of this data in helping to improve student wellbeing and outcomes. This has led to significant advances in the tools we use to collect, summarise, present and disseminate data, making it more accessible and understandable.

Three years ago, West Lothian College started investing in additional staff and technology to transform how we use data. We wanted to move beyond the traditional approach of descriptive analytics that report on how well our students performed, to using diagnostic analytics to understand what influences how well our students perform.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Essentially, this is about using prescriptive analytics to maximise student success. By looking holistically at a wide range of student engagement measures, we can identify at a much earlier stage what help to give a student that prevents them from slipping behind and not completing their course.

We are now collecting data from new students about their wellbeing. While students have always been encouraged to declare a mental health condition or signal a need for support, not all do and we have never been able to monitor the wellness of the whole student population. By collecting this data we can better align our support services and know what changes we might need to make as the student progresses through the year.

We’re not just applying our data analytics approach for students. We are looking at how our staff are using and being impacted by technology following the switch to remote working at the onset of the first lockdown. In one month alone, staff received over 209,000 emails and participated in 6,800 virtual meetings, raising important questions about how we avoid digital burn-out.

In planning future courses we don’t rely on our data alone. We use information collected by West Lothian schools on the future career preferences and destinations of their pupils, as well as the courses they are studying. Combined with labour market data, this helps us make our curriculum relevant to individual and employer needs.

Critical to this work are two underlying principles. First, unlike organisations that use data to automatically screen applicants for a job, or determine whether or not someone receives a credit card, our use of data is about how we can help an individual improve their chances of success.

Secondly, data helps identify issues and predict future trends. Our support staff, armed with analysis of our data and the intelligence that comes with that, reach out to students to offer personalised help.

Although we are still in the early stages of our data transformation work, we’re already seeing results. Outcomes for our students in key groups reported on by the Scottish Funding Council – for example, those who are care experienced, have a disability or belong to a minority ethnic group – are improving each year and are consistently better than the average for the college sector.

Data is making a difference in our college. However, it’s not about the numbers, it’s about what they mean. Behind every statistic there is a student who might need support and our approach of using data with empathy makes sure they get it.

Simon Earp, Vice Principal Performance and Improvement, West Lothian College



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.