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How can data help students make key decisions?

Modern students face a vast array of challenges.
Questions of finance, of accommodation, of attendance and attainment, about their careers and their very identities bear heavily on them. We collect a great deal of data about these specific matters, and this data can be of significant value to students if delivered properly. But we have to recognise that there are barriers to doing this effectively. Students often lack confidence in their ability to understand data they see as complex (and it is important to note this is not the same as them being unable to derive useful meaning from data); they have many conflicting priorities which can mean they sometimes find it hard to find the time to plan for the medium to long term; and they can simply be hard to reach. The challenge for many student support services is to get students to engage in the first place.
As a consequence, those of us who produce data often (but not always) use intermediary professionals to deliver it. In my near-20 years of generation labour market information, this generally means my dedicated and valued colleagues in careers and employability services. Jisc plays a crucial role in both developing data for students, and in delivering it. I have done – and continue to do – my fair share of communicating data directly to students and in that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about how I can do it effectively.
You can find any number of sets of principles of good data delivery, but in my experience, they can be boiled down to the following set of tenets as we work to get help students make these crucial decisions.

1. We need to be honest, impartial and, above all, trusted.

Trust is key. Without trust in us and our data we will not get a hearing. We are not owed trust, we have to earn it. And it is very easy to lose that trust, so job one is always to maintain that bond of trust between ourselves and users. That means being honest about what the data does and doesn’t say (we are not here to tell people what they want to hear, we are here to give people the tools to make decisions for themselves), it means being impartial – we’ll get onto exactly how this works later – and it means being candid about our limitations and those of the data we use. Sometimes, we will not have an answer for the questions we ask. Admitting that is crucial. Sometimes new data will supersede old data and may even prove us wrong about things we’ve said in the past. When that happens, if at all possible, we must be the ones to point that out, and we must own the process of examining this. All of this develops trust. One issue that comes up frequently is the question of ‘imperfect’ data. All is imperfect, very little is so imperfect it has no value at all. When a data source is incomplete or has issues, we take ownership of those issues, explain what they mean and what that means for the conclusions we draw, and we use the data. The sector is a little prone to making the perfect enemy of the good; if we wish to get things done we must avoid that.

2. We need to be able to communicate effectively.


You can be the best analyst in the business – and we have some of the best analysts in the business at Jisc – but if you can’t explain your data to either the end users or the mediators, you’re using to deliver that data to the end users, then your work has been wasted. Good comms are not an afterthought, we must constantly be thinking about the best ways to deliver data and insight directly, clearly and unambiguously to our users or the data will never be used effectively.

3. We must offer value to those seeking insight.


The students we talk to have busy lives and the time they spend with us must be worth it. It is a truism but we must do our best to anticipate student user needs so we’re ready with the questions they ask and that means always being engaged with student audiences so that they know we’ve got their backs and will reward them for the time they spend with us.

4. We need to drive action.


I enjoy working with my academic colleagues – indeed I have an academic role of my own – but we are not in this game solely to increase the sum of human knowledge, we are in the business of helping student to get things done. I have a wall of academic papers, think tank studies and Government Reviews which are full of good research, interesting and insightful conclusions and have led to no practical action. We don’t want the work we do to sit on shelves collecting dust.

5. Ultimately we need to empower our student users to make decisions.


This can be a tricky one, but for us it ought to be simple. Our job is not to tell students what to do, it is to give them the tools to give them the confidence to make their own decisions for themselves. You and I do not know the background and context of the individuals we work with, and that’s where our impartiality really kicks in. We deliver data and insight, and then we trust the student to come to a conclusion that works for them. And that trust will be repaid.
I’ve used the word ‘trust’ a lot here, and it’s central for me. If you trust students to be able to make their own decisions with well-communicated, valuable and honestly-delivered data, they will trust you to deliver it to them. That’s the bargain we want to be making, and it’s a bargain we can make.

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