Data Enabled Student Success

The data from students’ digital footprints can be an invaluable resource for institutions, teaching staff and the students themselves. It has many applications that can enrich students’ learning, wellbeing and integration into campus life.

One of the keys to establishing an approach that delivers benefits for students, teaching staff and institutions is the development of an institutional strategy for data-enhanced student success. Such a strategy should define institutional aims and roles and map out the steps required to deliver them. Most importantly, it should recognise the value of using data as a tool but position its use within the broader context of an institutional environment that motivates and encourages students to succeed.

Through DESSI, the Data-Enabled Student Success initiative, the National Forum and its partners from across the sector aim to work with institutions to develop sustainable, well-informed student success strategies for realising the potential of the data they already hold.

Data Enabled Student Success Initiative

DESSI was launched in 2017 by the National Forum in partnership with the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority, Quality and Qualifications Ireland,, HEAnet, EduCampus, the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association and the Higher Education Colleges Association. Its purpose was to build institutional and sectoral capacity to strategically engage with, and maximise the value of, their data as a resource for supporting student success.

27 higher education institutions, including every Irish university and technological higher education institution, have been involved in DESSI through formal participation, hosting institutional workshops and DESSI-themed events or contributing to resources and case studies. To support institutions, strategic workshops were facilitated in 14 Irish HEIs, two webinars were conducted, and two national events were held to foster institutional approaches to data-enabled student success. 18 DESSI resources were also published, covering topics such as strategy development, GDPR and good practice case studies and 11 local seminars relating to data/analytics were funded through the National Forum’s National Seminar Series. Over 600 representatives of the higher education community have taken part in related webinars or local/national events since the establishment of DESSI and the value of data-enabled approaches at both institutional and governmental level has received increased recognition, with learning analytics projects having attracted over €1.6m in strategic funding.

In October 2019, representatives of 13 participating institutions (three universities, six institutes of technology and four private colleges) agreed to take part in semi-structured interviews to discuss the impact of DESSI. Data from these interviews indicted the following:

  • DESSI has influenced the development of 16 strategies/policies across the institutions that participated in the interviews.
  • DESSI inspired or informed related initiatives currently underway in nine of the institutions.
  • DESSI facilitated intra-institutional conversations and collaborations and enabled inter-institutional co-operation.
  • DESSI has positively impacted on the perceived value of data as an educational resource at both institutional and national levels.
  • DESSI has resulted in the expanded embedding of data use in everyday institutional practices, including data-informed teaching approaches.

The data from students’ digital footprints can identify students that are at risk of underperforming and potentially withdrawing up to four months earlier than is otherwise possible. This gives institutions the opportunity to stage targeted, pro-active interventions which direct students to essential learning resources while there is still time for them to change their potential academic trajectory.

It can be used to alert pastoral staff to students exhibiting sudden changes in engagement which can be symptomatic of behavioural, personal or medical concerns, enabling timely, preventative interventions for students whose wellbeing may be at risk.

DESSI aims to support institutions as they develop effective strategies for realising the benefits of student data. It focuses on the key themes of:

  • Building good practice and sustainability
  • Compliance with data protection legislation
  • Identifying applicable data sources
  • Maximising the impact of existing applications and services
  • Using data to inform actions that effect real change
  • Growing an institutional data-aware culture
  • A collaborative approach in which all institutional stakeholders are involved

The National Forum’s 2017 learning analytics project identified a number of risks that may hamper institutions and, in turn, students from realising the full potential benefits of a data-enhanced approach to student success. These include:

  • A perception of ‘Learning Analytics’ as a highly complex and potentially expensive specialism. On the contrary, most institutions already have the expertise, resources and services they require to begin utilising their data to bolster student success.
  • A belief that the key to the effective use of data to support students is a significant financial investment in a bespoke IT analytics platform. While there are many excellent and highly fit-to-purpose products available, such an investment unaccompanied by a supporting strategy for its effective and legal use is unlikely to yield the full benefits for the institution or its teaching staff and students.
  • The risk of institutions making considerable financial investments in third-party products that may prove, in the long-term, not to be fully compatible with the needs of the institution.
  • The potential reputational and financial risk to institutions of using personal data in a manner that is subsequently discovered to be non-compliant with Data Protection legislation

DESSI aims to address these risks by partnering with institutions to support the development of tailored, itemised and sustainable strategies for using data to enhance student success.

DESSI is also extremely timely in its compatibility with themes of maximising the potential value of data that are increasingly emerging in policies and recommendations from key stakeholders such as the EU and the Department of Education and Skills. More information on the tie-ins with these policies are available in appendix 1.

The benefits for partner institutions include:

  • The opportunity to begin using data to effectively support student success. Data is a proven resource for potentially driving improvements in student learning as well as retention, progression and completion rates
  • Engaging with data also gives institutions the opportunity to target resources designed to support students to those who need and will benefit from them most. This can enhance an institution’s return on investment in such services
  • The supported development of a data-enabled student success strategy that is tailored with the institution to be fully congruent with their strategic aims and individual needs and contexts
  • A focus on maximising the benefits to be gained by using the resources already in use (such as the VLE) will enable institutions to get underway without any financial outlay.

DESSI will work with your institution to devise a bespoke strategic plan that is tailored to optimise the value of your institutional data. The process will be supported by a range of resources that will be made available to institutions.

Institutions will self-select for participation in DESSI. The exact plan for the process will be tailored in partnership with each institution so you will determine the specific aims of the collaboration, who is involved, how long it takes and what steps are needed. Institutions will decide themselves how far-reaching they wish the strategy to be. The National Forum will provide as much or as little direct support as you decide you want.

Specifically, the following is requested:

  • The nomination of an institutional Senior Champion, of an appropriate grade, that will support the development of the institutional plan for developing the strategy and embody the institution’s commitment to the process
  • The nomination of a primary institutional contact that will drive the process
  • A commitment to undertaking a collaborative approach that is representative of the key constituencies within the institution

While there are no financial resources available to support institutions’ engagement with the DESSI process, please note that all services and supports are provided without charge.

Please note also that data protection compliance is a key aspect of DESSI. During the first stages of the collaboration, appropriate checks and balances will be identified and assessed. These will be in place before any analysis of student data is undertaken.

DESSI is open to all Irish HE institutions, regardless of institution type, location or current data maturity.

To express an interest in participating in DESSI, please click here. Should you have any questions or wish to arrange a site visit to your institution, please contact

ORLA (the National Forum’s Online Resource for Learning Analytics) is an online library of open access resources and case studies relating to using data to support student success. A product of the National Forum’s recent Learning Analytics project, it was compiled with the help and guidance of over 60 lecturers, students, librarians, student advisors, teaching and learning practitioners and IT professionals from institutions across the country. It contains a wide range of resources that provide guidance and information to institutions and lecturers seeking to maximise the value of their data. ORLA is available at