Using Data to Better Support Students

min read

By effectively using data, higher education institutions can provide a more personalized experience for their students at every step of the student lifecycle.

Using Data to Better Support Students
Credit: / © 2021

More data is generated now than at any other point in history. According to one estimate, in 2020 every person in the world created 1.7MB of data every second.Footnote1 In addition, in early 2019 an astounding 90 percent of the world's data had been created in just the previous two years.Footnote2 With all of this data available today, higher education institutions are facing an inflection point.

Colleges and universities around the world have access to a plethora of student data today: grades, attendance records, tuition fees, engagement in online systems, and more. However, many face challenges in utilizing this data to transform the student experience. In fact, in 2017 only 32 percent of Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) said their institutions' investments in data and managerial analytics were "very effective."Footnote3 A 2018 study noted that only 31 percent of institutions systematically collect, integrate, and use data from their student information systems.Footnote4 This can be for various reasons, such as siloed data systems, data that is too difficult for stakeholders to access, or a lack of a data-driven culture across the institution. Yet no matter the challenge, higher education institutions have an opportunity to start looking to other industries to learn how to better support and serve their student population through the intelligent use of data.

Students' Shifting Expectations

Organizations across industries are already using data to engage with their customers on a more personal level. For example, Spotify recommends music playlists and tracks to listeners based on their previous listening habits. Banks offer certain credit cards and credit limits based on their customers' spending habits and income. And social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok create unique feeds and deliver targeted ads based on what users see, like, and share.

Today, many college/university students are in Generation Z. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, "The Generation Z student population is the most dynamic, with the highest tech expectations."Footnote5 These students are digital natives, already comfortable with the unique, tailored customer experiences of the commercial world, and they expect the same type of experiences in their learning environments. They want to engage with and attend the institutions that can provide personalized support at each step of the student lifecycle, including before they arrive on campus and after they graduate.

Getting the Most out of the Data

While many institutions are already collecting student data, effectively using this data to support student success requires a few more steps.

Break Down Data Silos

Instead of hosting institutional data across a variety of different systems and repositories across departments or functional areas, institutions can leverage a unified data platform that removes data siloes by combining all disparate data and telemetry in a single location. This helps institutions ensure a single source of truth, simplify data structures and schema, and reduce the number of systems and tools used by internal staff and administrators.

Leverage Advanced Analytics and Data Intelligence

While unifying cross-institutional data is a critical first step to establishing a single source of truth, data intelligence is necessary to turn that data into actionable insights—a critical component of personalized student engagement. After data is unified on a single platform, institutions can start uncovering new, actionable insights by correlating and analyzing previously disparate data points using advanced analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. These insights can help institutions support students throughout the entire student lifecycle by proactively identifying when students are at risk and offering tailored recommendations to improve their outcomes.

Provide Secure, Intelligent Access to Needed Data

To help democratize the use of data by internal staff and educators, institutional leaders can use solutions that enable them to intelligently provide everyone with access to needed institutional data. These solutions use advanced analytics and role-based identity management to ensure that all students, staff, and educators have access to the data they need, when they need it. This empowers all stakeholders to start using data without running into potential bottlenecks while also mitigating security and privacy risk for the institution.

Promote a Data-Driven Culture

At the end of the day, data is just a tool. Like other tools, it can be mishandled or misused without proper training or guidance. While many institutions have on-campus data experts, other staff, educators, and students need to learn how to get the most out of the data. By developing a data-driven culture, these institutions can promote everyone on campus to share knowledge, develop data literacy, and start using data in their day-to-day work. The following are tactics that institutions can take today to start promoting a data-driven culture:

  1. Providing training and resources for how to use data effectively
  2. Encouraging the use of dashboards and data in classes and meetings
  3. Using low-code/no-code tools that help students, staff, and educators with little technical background use data more effectivelyFootnote6
  4. Informing the campus community about key safety and privacy steps they can take to keep data secure, including multi-factor authentication and Zero TrustFootnote7
  5. Ensuring that everyone understands how to use data in an ethical mannerFootnote8

Engagement across the Broad Student Experience

By following these steps and effectively using data collected from the entire campus—both inside and outside the classroom—institutions can proactively monitor student engagement and provide support across the broader student experience. All students' experiences include their entire lifecycle—from recruiting to admissions to class attendance and to alumni engagement. This lifecycle encompasses the academic experience that students have with their class material and professors and the campus experience that they have outside of class (e.g., financial, housing, and career guidance). It is critical that colleges and universities use data to develop and deliver personalized experiences to students holistically, not just at one of these points. This will help institutions both better meet their students' expectations and better deliver new benefits to educators and staff. Some colleges and universities around the world are already seeing success in wrangling and using their institutional data to support students across these experiences.

Lifecycle Experience

TEDI-London is a new, design-led engineering enterprise, founded by Arizona State University, King's College London, and UNSW Sydney.Footnote9 When setting up their systems, TEDI's leaders knew they wanted the ability to gain a holistic view of every student throughout the lifecycle. To help, they adopted a unified data platform that provides leaders and educators with analytics-based insights. These insights are used to help predict outcomes and optimize student engagement from enrollment through graduation. TEDI has also worked to develop a mobile application that tracks students' updates around assignments and grades and uses that data to strengthen analytics around students' performance, tutors' effectiveness, and course feedback.

Academic Experience

Leaders at the University of Waterloo wanted to modernize their institution to better meet the changing needs of their students, staff, and educators.Footnote10 As part of this effort, the university's Student Success Office (SSO) used data collected from student questionnaires to create interactive dashboards showing how engaged students are in their courses. These dashboards deliver insights into the factors driving student engagement—including motivation, expectancy for success, and text anxiety. Professors can drill down into these categories to reveal actionable insights that help them enhance the class experience and drive student engagement and success.

Campus Experience

At Northumbria University, the student campus experience was fractured across multiple offices and services.Footnote11 Students were expected to navigate these services on their own, which resulted in a time-consuming and confusing experience—especially for new students. To streamline services and information, Northumbria developed an AI-powered portal that unified access to various campus resources. Students can send a single request to the portal, which recommends services, resources, and information from various offices based on the student's previous searches and those of the broader student body. This not only automates and streamlines students' access to information but also frees up campus service staff to focus on more critical and high-value internal efforts.

The Right Time to Adapt

As the world continues to evolve and digitally transform, students' expectations have shifted, driven by the amount of personalization they receive from organizations in other industries. Now, colleges and universities have the opportunity to follow that lead and use data to better understand who their students are and how they can support students' unique needs. Institutional leaders who are able and willing to adapt will be able to start delivering more engaging academic, campus, and lifecycle experiences now and in the future.

Microsoft has created a private Higher Education Community, where educators and leaders from higher education institutions can connect. You can join here and start learning from others, contributing to conversations, and sharing your ideas with a worldwide audience.

Microsoft has published a whitepaper that provides information and guidance on how higher education institutions can create student-centered experiences through the use of data and technology. To download the whitepaper, click here.


  1. "Data Never Sleeps," Domo (website), accessed April 20, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Michael Einstein [], "Some Amazing Statistics about Online Data Creation and Growth Rates" [], Information Overload, April 17, 2019. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Kenneth C. Green, "Provosts, Pedagogy and Digital Learning: The 2017 ACAO Survey of Provosts and Chief Academic Officers," November 2017. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Amelia Parnell, Darlena Jones, Alexis Wesaw, and D. Christopher Brooks, Institutions' Use of Data and Analytics for Student Success: Results from a Landscape Analysis (Washington, DC: NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the Association for Institutional Research, and EDUCAUSE, 2018), p. 11 (table 5). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Marianne Bray, "Flattening the Multimodal Learning Curve: A Faculty Playbook," The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. For a view of how Oxford University used similar tools to drive student success, see "University of Oxford Now One of the Largest Users of Power Apps in the UK," Microsoft News Centre UK, March 25, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. See Corey Lee, "Adopting a Zero Trust Approach in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review, March 31, 2021. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. See "Responsible AI Resources," Microsoft (website), accessed April 20, 2021. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. "TEDI-London Optimise Student and Faculty Engagement with Dynamics 365," ANS (website), accessed April 22, 2021. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. "University of Waterloo Uses Azure and Power BI to Empower Decision Makers in a Decentralized Institution," Microsoft (website), accessed April 22, 2021. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. "A Smarter, More Dynamic Portal: How Northumbria University Is Using Microsoft Dynamics 365 to Transform the Student Experience," Microsoft (website), accessed April 20, 2021. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.

Elliot Howells is Business Applications Industry Lead, Higher Education, at Microsoft.

Microsoft is a supporting partner of EDUCAUSE.

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