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Technology can help with student engagement

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Challenges in the higher education sector – such as increasing student numbers, student unpreparedness and reduced funding – are not problems unique to South Africa.
This is according to Richard Burrows, Blackboard Analytics specialist, speaking at an education influencer session at Durban Universities of Technology (DUT) in Durban.
“These challenges demand smarter ways of working, and like business who used data to respond and improve business processes, education will need to do the same to keep pace with the demand for the massification of education in the country,” says Burrows.
According to the education framework, access, success and completion rates continue to be racially skewed, with completion rates of white students being on average 50% higher than those of African students.
Myles Thies, head of strategic services at Eiffel Corp, says technology in higher education is “mission critical” and decisions to support the student and academic staff via technology need to be made at an institutional level.
Burrows points out that Blackboard’s philosophy is use data as a compliment to human decision-making. “Our technology alerts the student or academic to problems and the data provides the backdrop to the human intervention.”
The data helps identify students at risk, informs course management and design, while institution-wide adoption improves overall effectiveness.
When looking at how technology can assist student success, success needs to be contextualised. For the student it could be meeting their full potential, passing their chosen courses and progressing through the institution. For the institution success could include retaining students, optimising time to graduation and ensuring student satisfaction.
Burrows adds that predictive analytics solutions reach the right students at the right time, and alert academic and support staff to come to the student’s aid.
Research shows that a student’s level of engagement in an academic programme correlates very closely to a student’s success. Student behaviour around courses has massive long-term impact, but the bigger challenge is the time it will take to achieve this. Blended e-learning – a combination of face-to-face lecture time, online assignments (whether individual or in groups) tests and assessments- is a way, in realtime, of observing the student’s engagement.
“The online and digital space enables us to see a student’s engagement in realtime and then intervene if necessary,” says Thies.
Sakkie Smit, director of the Centre for Innovative Educational Technology at Cape Peninsular University of Technology (CPUT), adds: “While looking at the most recent published DHET data, 13,7% of students complete a three-year degree in the minumum time. The University of Technology sector is slightly higher at about 25%. With an additional two years, the pass rate doubles to between 35%-50%. After taking seven years to complete a three-year qualification, the pass rate is up to 75%.
“We lose 20% to 22% of students in their first year and I believe we could change these statistics by increasing student engagement.
“With a well-designed blended approach that requires less bricks-and-mortar, we can increase our throughput rate and respond to the demand for higher education massification, a strategic need identified by DHET,” says Smit.
“By only using published, audited data from 2014 it is too late to effect change in the student’s life in 2016; we require ‘clickometry’ and realtime data to make decisions. Currently, we have very little recent data and we don’t know how to use it.
“Fingerprint readers only record there is a finger in the room, not an engaged student growing and learning,” Smit adds. “Essentially, data can be used to improve course throughput and pass rate, which is a win-win for us all.”