Scholarly insight Winter 2019: a Data wrangler perspective

Clow, Doug; Coughlan, Tim; Cross, Simon; Edwards, Chris; Gaved, Mark; Herodotou, Christothea; Nguyen, Quan; Rienties, Bart; Thorne, Sam and Ullmann, Thomas (2019). Scholarly insight Winter 2019: a Data wrangler perspective. Open University, Milton Keynes.


Henry Ford famously said that “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” Similarly, our Prime Minister Theresa May indicated in 2016 to aim for a “red, white and blue Brexit”. While the Open University (OU) has been open for 50 years to all learners, we are aware that our students have unique and different learning needs, experiences, and expertise. The OU recognises that we need to carefully listen to our students, and focus on their needs. Nonetheless, in some of our narratives we tend to simplify and generalise these multiple, complex student voices into one common voice. As highlighted in all three chapters in this fifth Scholarly Insight report, working intensively together with the Faculties our Data wranglers have found strong empirical evidence that our students indeed have very unique and distinct voices, which influence their engagement, behaviour, and study success.
In Chapter 1 we worked closely together with the four Faculties to further unpack the qualitative feedback and students’ comments of the Student experience on a module (SEAM) survey (e.g., do Open degree students have different narratives when providing feedback; do high performing students “talk” differently from low performing students). Indeed our text analytics toolkit has highlighted that Open degree students speak differently from others (e.g., needing enough study time). Furthermore, higher achieving students report on different topics (e.g., content, feedback, group) than lower achievers (e.g., help, problem, experience). The OU needs to carefully balance these different voices, as addressing one concern from a high achieving student might not necessarily benefit other students, and vice-versa.
In Chapter 2 describes three approaches of students selecting different module pathways towards qualification completion. For one Open Degree programme in Creative Writing we find that 268 unique paths are taken by students, whereby some paths are more successful than others. Follow-up analyses in QUAL2F3 indicate substantial differences in pass rates and success depending on the respective route, specialism, and pathways students are taking. Sign-posting these “successful” paths to OU staff and students may help students to make more informed decisions of what to study next.
Finally in Chapter 3 we explore how students make timing decisions when to study for a module, and how so-called study break and assessment preparation weeks could help to provide more flexibility for our students. Study breaks are weeks during which no learning activities are planned or take place, and students are not expected to study for a module. Our big data analyses with 123,916 students and 205 OU modules indicate that the way OU designs study weeks has a substantial impact in how students study over time. Study break weeks substantially increase the chances of students to pass a module, while assessment preparation weeks are not related to pass rates
We hope that our Scholarly insights can help to inform our staff, but also spark some ideas how to further improve our understanding of the different student voices and qualification pathways.

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