Siyaphumelela Project Site Visits to NMMU and Wits

Wits and NMMU are two partners in the Siyaphumelela Initiative, funded by the Kresge Foundation and co-ordinated by Saide, to improve student success systematically through the use of data analytics. Recent visits to the universities by Saide and the data coach, Dr Jan Lyddon, aimed to get feedback on progress and identify areas where support is needed. Ephraim Mhlanga and Najma Agherdien participated in the visits.

NMMU Visit
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University is implementing an early warning system aimed at identifying weak students early enough in order to provide the necessary support for them to succeed. This early warning initiative is dubbed the Risk Analysis and Detection in order to Assist and Retain Students (RADAR). 

In 2016 the project was piloted in the Faculty of Law, although other Faculties like IT Engineering, Accounting and Education have participated on a voluntary basis. An interesting development was the request by university residences to fund an enrichment project called the Passages Programme – a programme that supports students academically in their residences. A data base for the Passages Programme was developed and integrated in the RADAR data base so that there is only one and not several disparate data systems. 

The NMMU team also reported that they conducted a Beginning University Survey of Student Engagement (BUSSE) survey of first year students on which they received 1000 responses. Some of the interesting findings that came out of the survey are that:

  • The majority of first year students are first generation students to attend university in their families.
  • Only a small number of the first generation students that enrol for university programmes graduate.
  • First generation students have wrong expectations of the demands of university education at registration. They expect university education to be easy and to be attained with minimal effort which tends to frustrate them when they discover otherwise.

In order to get students more involved in initiatives that are meant to improve their academic performance and enhance throughput rates, NMMU reported that they developed a compulsory module called Social Consciousness. This module was developed by students. The meeting acknowledged that more and more involvement of students in planning processes is likely to alleviate tensions between management and students. 

The Pro Vice Chancellor reported that NMMU was strategizing a possible recovery plan that ensures that the academic gains of the 2016 academic year are not lost as a result of campus disturbances.  An important point that she raised was the need to explore how the Siyaphumelela initiative can respond to some of the issues currently faced. Key questions to think about are:

  • How to roll out an early warning system based on online systems?
  • Would it make a difference if all students are provided with a mobile device like a tablet?
  • How can institutions build trust with students?

The NMMU team reported that the Bachelor of Science in Quantity Surveying at the University boasts of throughput rates of 85%. It would be useful to draw lessons of experience that can inform practice in other programmes.

After her visit to the institution, Jan Lyddon commented on the RADAR:

"My hat off to all of you, Dierdre Els and Lynn Biggs, for the continued expansion of RADAR.  It appears to be a well-accepted and growing network source of information for and about students that will support early alerts and actions.  I appreciated as well the thoughtful and conscientious approaches to ensuring the right information – guided by ethical considerations – is shared."

The Wits visit began with a meeting with the DVC Academic, Prof Andrew Crouch, followed by reflections on project progress, lessons learned and future analytics plans by the Wits project team. It was reassuring to note the DVCs commitment to the project and an attitude of constant improvement, particularly relating to the planned organisational change to enhance efficiency. The student protest movement featured strongly in discussions and served as a guide for some of the future plans.

The question of how data is used and absorbed and how this data is communicated to institutional leadership was posed. Reporting on current related work, it quickly became evident that the Wits Siyaphumelela team had made considerable progress in data collection and analysis and were constantly looking at refining tools (especially the biographical data survey tool). The team is planning to present their learnings from three out of five faculties at the 2017 Achieving the Dream Conference. Furthermore, a need was identified to look at what is common or unique about the results across not only faculties at Wits, but also across partner institutions. 

Jan commended the team for their efforts and pointed to a number of important considerations going forward. One consideration related to influencing the trajectory of student progress to increase success in a very intentional way. She suggested a practical example of achieving this would be effective goal setting and prioritising. Another consideration related to careful monitoring and evaluation of the project and she further suggested that value judgments as the project progresses would assist institutions to get a sense of what is working, or not, how much they are doing and how well they should/could do.

The Siyaphumelela project visits and data coaching sessions at NMMU and Wits served to revive energies and commitment to the goal of student success. Nurturing an institutional attitude of every student can succeed coupled with provision of the necessary support.