The East Rand, home of Africa’s busiest airport, provided another significant runway for the take-off of the Siyapumelela - We Succeed - Programme, by hosting its maiden conference at the OR Tambo International Garden Court in May this year. Saide is serving as the co-ordinating body of the programme, a regionally-based learning analytics initiative aimed at improving student retention and success in higher education, sponsored by the Kresge Foundation. Fatima Rahiman reports.
The conference was well attended by more than a 100 delegates, drawing representatives from 12 South African higher education institutions, along with national educational NGOs and the Department of Higher Educationand Training as well as representatives from the Council on Higher Education's Quality Enhancement Project.
Guided by the theme: Exploring the potential of data analytics to inform improved practice in higher education: connecting data and people, the conference was preceded by an intensive full day workshop during which the four participating universities viz. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, University of the Free State, University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand, shared their respective institutional progress with regards to the programme’s objectives along with identifying potential challenges and opportunities in achieving the stated outcomes.
Professor Tim Renick, Vice-President of Georgia State University in the USA, (an institution similar in context and challenges to that of most South African institutions, with a high percentage of low-income student enrolment) enthralled the audience with his institution's accomplishment of eliminating race and income as a predictor of student success. This has been achieved through implementing various initiatives based on data mining of twelve years’ worth of student data. He shared how the university’s early warning system, based on predictive analysis, has spawned a number of tested and refined low cost, scalable, innovative programmes such as:
- supplemental instruction by former successful students;
- formation of freshman learning communities which entail groups of 25 students enrolled in “meta-majors” ;
- block scheduling of courses ;
- re-tooled pedagogies involving adaptive learning software;
- and small, prudent financial retention grants.
The combination of the above has resulted in phenomenally reduced student attrition. More importantly the data is made available to students via apps or online access. Needless to say Renick’s presentation as the first keynote speaker set an inspiring and impressive tone for the rest of the conference proceedings, attested by a volley of tweets generated and displayed on the conference Twitter backchannel #siyaza15.
The next highlight of the conference was the vice chancellors’ panel discussion whereby the leadership of the four participating institutions nailed their colours to the mast in support of the learning analytics initiative. While they acknowledged its democratising potential in providing verifiable data to implement transformative change, they highlighted the challenge in scaling the initiative with differing institutional types which will necessitate multivariate datasets which will need to be embedded into a context of relational dynamics. For this to succeed would require vigorous stewardship of the programme, Prof Habib opined, so as to avoid the ‘risk of retreating into institutional cocoons’. The latter point was especially crucial point given the Wits VC’s commitment to avail its data in the public domain, dismissing claims of reputational risks as being imagined fears. Professor Derrick Swartz emphasized the need for individual biographies to be written within the context of the intended cohort studies so as to understand the dynamic between high level hypotheses i.e. at the meso-level and guarding against assumptions made and what really happens at the micro-level given that often the explanatory power is limited at the level of individual learners. Professors Cheryl de la Rey and Liz Lange also underscored the importance of academic voices being involved in the data analytic conversation, cautioning against limiting the programme to institutional technical leadership.
The opening day continued with an impressive line-up of speakers from our local shores, which included an update on initiatives by the Department of Higher Education along with a parallel paper presentation session during which academics from the various SA universities engaged in rich, robust debate .
Prof Candace Thille’s (Stanford University ) and Prof. Shirley Walters’(UWC) session on day two embodied a certain fengshui with Prof Thille’s opening presentation on the use of technology focussing largely on its affordances in cognitive scaffolding, complemented thereafter by Prof Walter’s talk, which provided a slice of gritty campus life through her presentation on flexible learning approaches. The complexities of factors that surround student success looking at the issues of learning both from within the ‘black box’ and beyond were underscored.
‘Out of the mouth of students, oft times come gems’ could well have epitomised the sentiment of the delegates in response to the next session which proved to be the pièce de résistance of the day as our young student panel injected the proceedings with frank and refreshing insights on learning and teaching. The twitter feed was ablaze with the quotes.
The conference closed with an encouraging note from the keynote speaker Dr. William E. Trueheart, founding President and CEO of Achieving the Dream, exhorting delegates to be bold and engage in courageous conversations in order to bring about meaningful change as well as highlighting the need for passionate leadership to ensure success in this venture.
Delegates were reminded about the mobile application, developed by Saide, to evaluate the various elements of the programme, and to make recommendations for the next 2016 conference. Presentations and recordings of the talks are available on the Siyaphumelela website.