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Enhancing student engagement using technological solutions

From fixes to foresight: Jisc and Emerge Education insights for universities and startups. How do we make sure students feel that their voices are heard and represented by their institution? Could technology help?

Four colleagues discuss work in an office.

David Maguire

Foreword by Professor David Maguire, interim vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex and former chair of Jisc:

"Student engagement is an important, yet sometimes elusive topic for universities in the UK and beyond. There is a substantial body of literature that shows how high engagement influences good student outcomes, high NSS scores and low attrition rates.

The increased sense of ‘belonging’ that engagement typically brings is approached differently in each institution depending on individual elements such as the university mission, characteristics of the student body and commitment of staff.

However, student engagement’s very malleability also means that it is highly amenable to being positively influenced by a range of factors or nudges. This is where technology-based solutions can play a role in helping to move student engagement in a positive direction.

"As a sector we’re familiar by now with companies offering shiny new technological solutions for the challenges we face and the transformations that are needed. There is no shortage of technology, as we demonstrate later.

"Equally, there is no lack of appetite across the sector for improving student engagement and using technology to do so. But university leaders face a challenge in staying appraised of what’s out there that really works, what’s good practice and what skills and capabilities are needed to make the most effective use of these solutions. There is also the cost and effort of rolling out an innovation across the university – there are only so many strategic and pan-institution initiatives a university can take on in any academic year.

"However, if there is any time that calls for serious consideration of the power and potential of appropriate technology aligned with good pedagogy to better understand and improve students’ experience of university life, that moment is now.

"Many universities are still finding their way to their post-COVID-19 equilibrium and the preferred balance of online, in-person and hybrid teaching and learning. In taking the sector’s technology pulse it is clear there has never been more openness to the idea of using technology to facilitate and enhance the student journey. A few universities have flown with such technology during the pandemic, and all now have some footprint, at least, which is a vastly different context to pre-2020.

"This paper takes a practical approach to surveying the landscape and considering the solutions and good practice that exist right now to enhance student engagement in higher education across the UK. For convenience it looks at four aspects of the student journey: discovery and enrolment; non-academic support; academic support; and career development and employability.

"It also sets out the steps university leaders might take to be in a stronger position to exploit more fully the benefits of technology for student engagement. To make progress I believe we need good local digital strategies, investment in staff at all levels, sharing of experience, a coordinated search for solutions where none currently exists, and empowerment of student experts. Of those next steps, I particularly urge universities to take heed of the call to share experiences, as so many leaders have done in the creation of this paper, and pool resources – to collaborate, learn from and seek help from others. May this paper offer a starting point."


Over the years, universities have rightly prioritised student engagement across all areas from learning and teaching to faculties and professional services, establishing student engagement strategies, student-centred strategies and most recently, student engagement analytic systems. Yet, according to the Student Academic Experience Survey 2021 (pdf), fewer than half of students feel that their voice is heard and represented by their institution. The National Student Survey (NSS) tells a similar story. Could technology help?

While there are numerous technological solutions that can improve student engagement, such technical innovation in universities is often siloed rather than pervasive and the search for student feedback too often falls back on the tired old trope of the traditional survey. Yet, as we will explore in this paper, the rise of personalisation, AI, learning analytics and increasing student preferences for mobile and cloud services, all offer exciting opportunities for universities to change and improve their approaches to student engagement.

In this paper we examine this new landscape and the emerging innovators. We consider four key areas of growth and progress, and the technology solutions innovating in those areas, mapped to the student journey. Based on interviews with university leaders and technology pioneers, alongside compelling case studies, the paper presents some of the current good practice in this field and the next steps universities need to take if they are to exploit these technology-based solutions to their fullest.

Part one: The student engagement imperative

What is student engagement?

"Student engagement? It’s everything we do”

Ebrahim Adia, pro vice-chancellor (academic leadership), University of Central Lancashire

Student engagement is a major focus in global higher education. In the UK, it has been firmly in the spotlight through the work of many organisations, including the QAA and the Office for Students (OfS) (and its devolved nation equivalents, and predecessor Hefce). OfS has been active in student engagement through its 2020 three-year student engagement strategy, and via the mechanisms of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and National Student Survey (NSS).

The pandemic, with its overturning of so many norms of student life, has only made the need to involve students in shaping their own experience of higher education all the more acute.

But what do we mean by ‘student engagement’? It can be a broad, even all-encompassing, concept, as we can see from Ebrahim Adia’s comment. It can cover any and every interaction a student has with any part of the university, whether that’s digital or in-person, with learning environments or estates, with members of staff or with peers.

Looking to the literature, Trowler’s extensive student engagement literature review (pdf) (2010) defines student engagement as being:

“concerned with the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution.”

That may seem somewhat cold but Trowler also acknowledges that engagement is more than simply levels of involvement or participation – it requires feelings and sensemaking as well as activity. She identifies three dimensions to student engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive.

These dimensions can have both a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ pole, each of which represents a form of engagement, separated by a gulf of non-engagement (withdrawal or apathy).

Table 1: Examples of positive and negative engagement
Positive engagementNon-engagementNegative engagement
BehaviouralAttends lectures, participates with enthusiasmSkips lectures without excuseBoycotts, pickets or disrupts lectures
CognitiveMeets or exceeds assignment requirementsAssignments late, rushed or absentRedefines parameters for assignments

Table from Trowler, V (2010) Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy

"Student engagement for me is that sense that students, individually or collectively, are immersed in the experience: Do I feel valued? Do I feel supported in my trajectory? Do I feel challenged? Do I feel that I have a supportive peer group and supportive staff?”

Chris Husbands, vice chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University

While much of the focus of student engagement literature has been on student-centred learning and in learning and teaching practices, there is increasing recognition that engagement can take place in other areas of the institution, such as library services, students’ unions and careers services. These, too, can have an impact on student retention and success and must not be overlooked.

So, in this paper we look at student engagement right across the student journey, which we have divided into four stages:

  • Discovery and enrolment
  • Non-academic support
  • Academic support
  • Career development and employability

And we take a broad view of engagement that puts the student at the heart, recognises the role of co-creation by staff and students, and also values the social dimension.

“Belonging is a really important concept in student engagement, whether it's belonging to the university itself, belonging to the student community or belonging to the academic community. It’s the feeling that 'this is my place' and 'these are my people'. That sense of belonging comes when you feel that the university broadly cares about you and is interested in your progress; your wellbeing and your levels of activity.”

Mary Curnock-Cook, chair, Emerge Education’s HE Network

Why does student engagement matter?

“Student engagement can be defined by the degree to which a student is interacting with the university in its widest sense. While engagement with their academic programme is vital, connection with their peers and the wider university community is equally important. This is often through students’ union-organised volunteering, societies and sports clubs.

"As long as there's that continued interaction with the university community in this widest sense then we typically see good progress on the programme. When we see a reduction in interaction with the university community, that's when we also see a tail-off in terms of academic attainment (although it can often be associated with other issues as well).

"Although this wide interaction is vital, given the nature of the data available to us, an alert is typically triggered by issues with regard to academic performance, whereas currently elusive evidence of decline in other interactions might potentially provide better early warning of problems.”
Tim Quine, deputy vice-chancellor, University of Exeter

Data shows clear correlations between student engagement, academic outcomes, progression and retention.

The landmark What Works? study (pdf) (2017) from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which drew together evidence from 13 institutions, 43 discipline areas and many interventions and changes over a number of years, highlighted the importance of a student’s engagement and belonging for their retention and success:

“It was concluded from the projects that improved continuation rates and, from the qualitative and survey data about students’ experiences, effective interventions or activities can be facilitated by enhancing students’ engagement and belonging. In particular, engagement and belonging were found to be developed and enhanced through interventions that enabled students to develop supportive peer relations; allowed meaningful interactions between staff and students; developed students’ capacity, confidence and identity as successful higher education learners; and offered a higher education experience that was relevant to students’ current interests and future (career) goals”

There is also data from studies at the level of individual institutions. For example, a longitudinal survey (2019) of undergraduate students at a UK university, aiming to understand how engagement and wellbeing vary dynamically during an academic term, found a positive interaction between engagement and happiness. Crucially, the authors suggest a possible feedback loop where increasing engagement increases academic performance, which in turn increases wellbeing, which then further increases engagement.

Or take the predictive analytics project at Nottingham Trent University, which calculates engagement scores based on VLE access, library usage, attendance, assignment submissions and card swipes, and has also identified a positive relationship between student engagement and both progression and attainment. Data published in a 2016 case study (pdf) found a strong link with retention. Fewer than a quarter of students with a low average engagement progressed to the second year, whereas more than 90% of students with good or high average engagement did so. It also found a strong link with achievement: 81% of students with a high average engagement graduated with a 2:1 or first class degree, compared to only 42% of students with low average engagement.

81% of students with a high average engagement graduated with a 2:1 or first class degree, compared to only 42% of students with low average engagement.

Why is great student engagement so difficult?

Student engagement is clearly both important and desirable. But it’s also not easy. There are a number of broad challenges mitigating against effective student engagement in most universities.

The diversity of the student body

Put simply, there’s not ‘one’ student with whom to engage. Engagement will vary according to the motivation and capacity of each individual student. An 18-year-old full-time student living on campus may engage very differently to a part-time commuter student who is also juggling work and caring responsibilities or an international student. Yet all need to feel that crucial sense of belonging.

Professor Ebrahim Adia, pro vice-chancellor (academic leadership), University of Central Lancashire:

“Increasingly, we need to think about engagement as something that we build around the students rather than expect students to engage with us on our terms.
"We should not assume that engagement in its broadest sense across the academic, professional services and social domains of the student experience will automatically happen: we need to keep making the case of the benefits of engagement, we need to equip our students with the confidence and capacity to engage and we need to make it as easy as possible.”

The complexity of the university experience

The higher education experience is a multifaceted experience. Effective student engagement requires the institution to listen across a very broad range of domains: cognitive, academic, emotional, social, vocational and more besides. The sheer scale of most institutions makes engagement more challenging as relationships become more transactional.

The effects of the pandemic

There are particular challenges for student engagement relating to the impact of the pandemic. The Student Futures Commission interim report (2021) (pdf) warns that students will need more support to regain a sense of control over their university experience and rebuild their confidence. There is ongoing uncertainty over what a university will look and feel like for students and “this unease and uncertainty means that some students will struggle to re-engage with the student experience fully”. Mental health and wellbeing support has never been more needed. According to ONS data, more than half of students said that their mental health had worsened during the autumn term 2020.

Role of external factors

The last few years have been busy for UK universities in policy terms. Since 2012 there have been increased tuition fees, steady marketisation, greater emphasis in skills and employment rewards, an increase in the number and proportion of international students and industrial action around pay and pensions, to name but a few. Collectively, these have encouraged students to assert their authority over universities based on their expectations as fee-paying consumers. It is evident that some of these changes have negatively impacted students’ perception of their engagement. But there is also an embedded model of engagement based around partnership. The complexity lies in the fact that students may move quickly and frequently between these consumerist and partnership models.

It is clear that universities need multiple channels and pathways through which to interact with and listen to diverse groups of students in diverse ways. What role can technology play to facilitate and enhance this process?

Part two: The role of technology

Technology developers are creating a range of tools to help increase our understanding of student engagement patterns and behaviours across the student journey, identifying where support is needed. In this section we’ll be looking briefly at the key trends in technology for student engagement, then at some of the tools on offer at each stage of the student journey, plus short case studies and examples of how they are working in practice. We’ll also consider the barriers that are holding universities back from harnessing technology more fully.

Key trends in technology for student engagement

AI approaches

Artificial intelligence (AI), while in its early stages of penetration into the UK higher education sector, offers exciting potential to enable deeper personalisation for students and more streamlined operations for universities.

For example, AI tools are being used to carry out administrative activities that support better student outcomes. Tools such as ReUp and Signal Vine help support retention efforts by maintaining open lines of (tech and human) communication with students and analysing the data to identify and engage with at-risk students.

AI tools are also being used to improve the quality of student experience. Students can use tools such as Ida and n-Powered to get answers to student services questions on demand, InScribe to connect with each other outside of class, and Caroami to solve interpersonal conflicts in halls of residence.

Chatbots are a relatively mature application of AI – for example Keele University has introduced one for its clearing system, to help prospective students find out more about the university. More speculative applications for AI in HE, according to Jisc’s excellent summary of the current state of play (2021), include dialogue-based tutors, collaborative learning tools and sentiment analysis, to detect analysis in emotions and speech.

“The social and mental health aspect is key. There could be a role for AI applications there, to nudge students to get involved, act in a social convening role. Those tools are definitely needed.”

Andy McGregor, head of edtech, Jisc

Jisc's ExploreAI contains a range of AI demos - it’s a good place to experiment with AI and explore the possibilities.

Developments in learning analytics

Learning analytics, which uses data to inform decisions on how to support students’ learning, from individual to curriculum level, have become increasingly embedded in universities. A distinction needs to be made between ‘analytic’ and ‘predictive’ approaches to learning analytics, with adequate attention paid to the moral and ethical issues around the latter.

Jisc continues to explore using learning analytics data to support student engagement in a range of areas. The pandemic led to increased online activity and interactions across a variety of systems, increasing the amount of data and the need to automate collections, processing and aggregation automatically. This has the potential to enrich learning analytics and improve insights in the future.

The now firmly hybrid attendance footprint of students engaging with their taught materials online, not just on-foot, is crucial. Jisc has expanded data integrations for student engagement markers/ footprints in learning analytics to include Zoom, Office 365 (Teams and other apps) and will expand to others too (such as lecture capture systems).

The value of automating and maintaining the live collection of student engagement (big) data, on behalf of institutions, and presenting it and making it available in an intuitive and efficient way cannot be overestimated.

In 2016, the University of Greenwich became one of a group of universities to partner with Jisc to co-design and build an analytics solution tailored to the needs of HE institutions and their core users. The university recognised that a data-focused approach could improve student engagement and that, harnessed correctly, data could be used to support decision-making and improve course modules and content. A learning analytics tool also opens up the possibility of introducing a more customised learning experience for every student, enabling them to follow their own interests in ways that fit their individual learning style.

According to the case study, the university has gained significant insights into student engagement and its predictive modelling, including:

  • Data showing how students are engaging with different content and modules helped to re-evaluate what’s required to keep learning fresh and relevant
  • The university being able to identify less engaged students more quickly via the learning analytics traffic light tool, which notes student behaviours associated with a lack of engagement and risk of failing in order to make appropriate interventions where necessary
  • Re-evaluating both course content and assessment has made it possible to spread workloads more evenly, manage stress levels, give students a better learning experience, protect their wellbeing and improve attainment

“We’re seeing patterns that will help us improve the student experience for everyone, and close attainment gaps for black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) students.”

Dr Christine Couper, director of strategic planning, University of Greenwich (August 2020)

Case study: Early intervention using predictive analytics at the University of Central Lancashire

Two years ago the University of Central Lancashire rolled out an early intervention model based on predictive analytics. It uses a range of student data to pick up early patterns and identify students who may be beginning the process of disengagement with the university, which may eventually lead to withdrawal.

“Technology has been really helpful in helping us to pull together data from multiple sources to help us identify such students,” says Professor Ebrahim Adia, pro vice-chancellor (academic leadership), University of Central Lancashire.
“The best evidence that it’s working is around our non-attendance panels at the University that we organise seven or eight weeks into the semester where we look at all the students whose attendance is not as we might expect. I am delighted that the number of students considered at those panels has reduced significantly. In other words, early intervention works. We've identified the students at risk of future disengagement. We've offered them support. We've let them know we care. It's making a tremendous difference.
“Technology provides the intelligence to identify where greater attention and focus is required, but that attention and focus has to be very human. When students are not engaging with the university as expected – for example, with learning and teaching, accessing resources, spending time on the learning platforms – it can indicate some wider challenges in their lives and it is always better to have an early conversation. On occasions this may reveal the student didn’t understand the full benefit of engaging with all aspects of the university experience. On other occasions it may reveal the student needs support either with learning and teaching or with other challenges they may be experiencing in their lives. My view is the sooner you identify such students and the sooner we can wrap around expert specialist support, the better.”

Technology-enabled social spaces – on campus and online

“The extended campus is the physical and digital campus, and how you're moving between the two is important. There isn't a visible campus over here, and then a technology delivery over here, but that single entity that is the extended campus. How do you drive engagement and sense of belonging across the extended campus? Clever thinking is needed around that point of fusion between the physical and the digital. How can you use technology to drive engagement with the campus experience?”
Chris Husbands, vice chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University

The pandemic has acutely changed the way HE, FE and society in general views the use of video and collaboration tools such as teams and Zoom. Jisc has been working with a number of partners before and during COVID-19 on programmes looking at using the latest technology to transform the learning experience by enabling richer, more interactive remote learning environments.

These concepts have been crystallised further with the changing demand profile and use cases that we are seeing. It’s all about user experience and parity for remote participants so that staff and students feel more involved in a more natural way. These kinds of projects require no significant IT investment – the technology is cloud based, easy to use and install.

Sticky campuses – digitally enabled spaces where students want to spend time even when they do not have formal learning sessions to attend – and smart campuses, which make the most of real-time data, were trending pre-pandemic and are likely to continue to do so post-pandemic. Sticky campuses promote collaborative learning and opportunities for richer social and emotional connections between students.

“At Greenwich campus we made the campus sticky by building three new buildings and used a lot of push technology to help students move around: your bus is leaving now, your printing’s ready, if you want a PC, they are available here. We pushed all of this technology through to them on an app. It worked really well and was very much welcomed by the students. We did a lot of student focus groups to work out what it was that different groups of students – commuting students, international students, students who lived in halls – wanted.”
Anne Poulson, director of transformation, University of Hull (formerly COO, University of Greenwich)

Off campus, virtual communal study spaces are proving an interesting new market that has blossomed during the pandemic and may continue to thrive, with plenty of room for innovation, once all students return to studying in person.

While many are merely a streamer broadcasting themselves studying, either live or pre-recorded, over YouTube or Twitch (and somehow garnering millions of views as they do it), there are also platforms that offer virtual study rooms in which thousands of users congregate to study. StudyStream offers 24/7 ‘virtual focus rooms’, boasts 3.5 million users and credits the ‘psychology of mimicry and accountability’ as factors in the increased productivity some users claim to experience by working in a virtual study room.

Jisc has taken a closer look at another such space, Discord, as it is “of interest to Jisc and the wider education sector as it is where a growing number of college and university age students spend a lot of their leisure and study time outside of scheduled classes. There is even a dedicated ‘Education’ category with servers for learning and practicing languages, homework help, and general studying and productivity.”

Some universities, such as UCL, are exploring (along with virtual common rooms) how they might develop their own institutional virtual study rooms, and Jisc suggests “there is also potential for virtual study platforms to create communities of like-minded users, which may be more appealing to some than the high levels of randomness which exist currently”, while also noting possible concerns around cyber security, surveillance, data handling and retention and the potential for misuse of these platforms by bad actors.

"The important thing is not whether a lecture is online or in-person. It's whether students get together and have a coffee and talk on the way in, on the way out, and have lunch together and discuss it afterwards. That's the engagement, but not whether it's online or in-person."
Mary Curnock Cook, chair of Emerge Education’s HE Network

Real-time estate management at the University of Northampton

“We can get real-time feedback across the university. Using a software-defined network we can trace the movements of everybody across the estate through their mobile devices. We can track how people move around the buildings in real time and we can see where they're congregating – or where they're not,”

says Nick Petford, vice chancellor and CEO at the University of Northampton

“We're starting to think about how we might be able to develop a form of just-in-time timetabling, for instance. For example, we could see that if a lecturer's not turned up because they got stuck in traffic and has been unable to tell the students and those students are now just a gang of people waiting for something to happen. We can see that and solve the problem more quickly.
“We can see how rooms are being used, how the space is being used effectively, not just at real time, but longitudinally. We can see how students move across the estate, through car parks and in social spaces. We're using that intelligence to inform our estate strategy, so the movement of people will then define how we continue to build the estate in future – all based on data.”

Technology for student engagement market map

The map below represents a snapshot of the market, highlighting some noteworthy tools in each category. It doesn't cover all organisations in these categories. It’s notable that, of the 25 organisations on this map, only nine existed before 2014, with more organisations every year attempting to develop tools to engage students.

Student engagement market map graphic

Text version of student enagement market map

A map showing organisations mapped against four pillars.

Discovery and enrolement


Academic support

Career development and employability

It’s helpful to look at how tools built from these technologies fall across the student journey, which we’ve divided into four blocks: discovery and enrolment; non-academic support; academic support; and career development and employability.

Of course, we should acknowledge that while this distinction is helpful in understanding available technology within individual facets of student engagement, there is inevitably a challenge around how these are considered holistically. The four dimensions here can be experienced simultaneously and so how technology solutions work together to contribute to improved engagement overall is critical.

Discovery and enrolment

This covers all the tools developed to help students through the recruitment process, from discovering the university, applying and paying the fees, to navigating the visa process for international students, and enrolling.

For example: Unibuddy is a student recruitment platform that connects prospective students globally with current students. It is an interactive way for prospective students to learn about the university on platforms they’re familiar with, beyond what’s on the university’s website.

Case study: Unibuddy and Middlesex University

Unibuddy started life in 2017 as a peer-to-peer platform that connects prospective students one-to-one with current students at the institution they’re considering, to find out first-hand about life there, meet people they might relate to and ask questions not answered by a prospectus.

Middlesex University has one of the most diverse student cohorts in the UK and has been using Unibuddy since 2017 to create peer-to-peer connections between prospective students and student ambassadors.

“Each of the students coming to Middlesex will have differences, given our diversity,”

says Paul Woods, director, marketing and recruitment at Middlesex.

“Some of the first things they’re considering are: will I fit in? Is this the right move for me? Will I be able to cope? Will there be individuals like me? We've used Unibuddy to profile that diversity, so that they see a relatable role model as a reassuring, supportive guide through the journey.”

Middlesex students who are paid to work on the platform make a point of turning an initial question into a conversation and trying to pre-empt what that prospective student might need next, so that a first chat becomes a relationship.

“Principally, it is reassurance at all stages,” says Woods.

Read the full case study in The future of student recruitment report.

Non-academic support

This includes tools that support easy communication among students, faculty and administrators for mentorship, retention, and health and disability support. These tools help instil a sense of belonging among students and impact the quality of student experience and outcomes.

For example, Vygo is an engagement platform that connects students to older peers for peer support and tutoring services, to alumni for career advice and mentorship, and to staff for transparent and seamless student support services.

ReUp uses AI to identify and engage at-risk students through a combination of automated and human-led communication to reduce and re-enrol students at risk of withdrawing.

This category also includes tools that allow administrators to analyse engagement data and student feedback data to improve support services, such as Invoke Learning and Unitu.

Case study: Togetherall and the University of Manchester

Togetherall (formerly Big White Wall) is a clinically managed online community where members anonymously support each others’ mental health, with trained practitioners available 24/7 to keep the community safe. It also offers resources from self-assessments to creative tools to help members express how they’re feeling and a wide range of self-guided courses. It is designed to support those with mild to moderate need, with the infrastructure to case-manage individuals at risk.

When Janine Rigby, then innovation manager at the University of Manchester, was asked by senior leaders to investigate what innovative products were available in the wellbeing space – a high priority for the university – and had been tried and tested by other universities, her first step was a series of focus groups with students.

“Two issues came up every time: mental health and safety on campus,” says Rigby.
“They wanted help to be immediate and they wanted it to be from a real person. What also came across strongly from the students was that they liked technology. But they didn't like technology that was automated. They liked technology that assisted them to reach real people.”

Two products fitted the bill: Togetherall for mental health support and SafeZone for campus safety.

Togetherall is an online anonymous community for mental health support, available 24/7 and moderated by trained clinicians – which was a critical point for Rigby. Students can access the community wherever they are, including international students who may have gone home to a different country in the holidays, which was also seen as a benefit. It’s available to staff as well as students.

“I think the key takeaway point for me was that [the products] connected them to real people. It wasn't using technology for the sake of it,” explains Rigby.

Togetherall was introduced in September 2019 and came into its own when COVID-19 struck, the campus closed and there was immediate concern over the mental health of those who were left behind.

“To have Togetherall at that time was really important to us. It meant that students had a direct line without having to go and physically see someone; they could still communicate with other people and get support. We thanked our lucky stars that we put it in place. Both those students on campus and those who did manage to get home still had support from the university via Togetherall,” says Rigby.

Read a full case study in Student and staff wellbeing report (pdf).

Case study: Unitu and Swansea University

Unitu is an online platform that helps universities and students’ unions collect and analyse student feedback in real time to delivery faster improvements to the student experience.

Following work that uncovered a need to make better use of informal feedback from students and close the feedback loop by demonstrating that student concerns are responded to, Swansea University rolled out Unitu in 2017-18. More than 14,000 students have access to the system and in that first year there were more than 70,000 interactions from the students.

Run and self-moderated by the student representative community, who respond as well as provide updates on progress, and supported by both academics and professional staff, Unitu facilitates a transparent engagement process, allowing students to connect and share their views, and helping to support the learning community ethos. It creates an ideal platform for student reps to reach out and engage with their peers in a student-only environment, before moving topics into the university domain, enabling them to run campaigns to effect change in an engaged environment that they know the university is responsive to.

“We wanted something that was going to be far more responsive. Far more real time, digitally based, so students could have it on their smartphones. It has been enormously successful. Universities have sometimes lagged a little bit behind their customers in terms of what they would expect. Students have their lives on their smartphones and I don't think we always meet that. So we wanted to do something that was very mobile based, very user friendly. We took a plunge into a solution from a startup and it’s certainly worked for us,”

says Adrian Novis, director of academic services, Swansea University.

Academic support

This covers teaching and learning tools that develop learning communities, build interactive course content, and analyse classroom engagement and collaboration.

For example, the Minerva Project, Codio, Insendi, Smart Sparrow, Studious and Immersify Education are all tools used for building interactive course content. TeachFX analyses voice during class to measure the student engagement, the equity of voice and the discourse patterns. Mentio is an AI-enabled discussion platform that provides structure to forums for more collaborative thinking. It also assesses the discussion and grades students on the quality of their participation.

Career development and employability

This covers all tools that help students develop personalised career pathways, including course recommendations, project based education and job recommendations

Riipen, for example, provides a marketplace of project-based learning opportunities with real companies, which can be imbedded into coursework or taken as internships, so students are more engaged with what they are learning in the classroom and can apply it in the real world.

Case study: Riipen and the University of Southampton Business School

In 2018, the University of Southampton Business School became the first UK university to sign up with Riipen’s cloud-based experiential learning platform, which offers online and flexible project-based work experience opportunities to post-secondary students.

Partnering with Riipen enables Southampton to embed real-world projects within modules, offer students virtual work experience placements as part of their degree, and connect students directly with employers from Riipen’s international network.

Southampton is also using Riipen’s platform to engage with international offer holders, setting ‘challenges’ before their arrival on campus. This helps the students to start building their social networks and cultivates an affinity with Southampton Business School; students can start building up their portfolios and receive meaningful feedback, with the intention that they arrive with validated skills in advance of starting their formal degrees.

In 2019-20, Southampton listed six modules and connected with 13 employers to run projects – 50% came from Riipen’s global ecosystem and 50% were invited from Southampton’s existing enterprise and alumni networks. This offered 350 project experiences for postgraduate and undergraduate students. On average, students spend around 50 hours per semester on this work. In 2020-21, Southampton has listed 12 modules and the school has long-term ambitions to embed live learning in as many modules as possible.

Student feedback so far has been positive; live learning consistently receives high scores in module evaluations. Live project-based assessment, hosted on Riipen, was recommended by Southampton students to the Faculty Education Committee as one of the best they had experienced.

Read a full case study in The future of employer-university collaboration — a vision for 2030 report.

What’s holding universities back from harnessing technology for student engagement?

"Technology won't fix a problem if you've got the structures and your culture wrong. Technology can speed things up and it can allow you to track more, and more effectively. But if you’ve got an underlying cultural bubble, you won't necessarily fix it through technology”

Chris Husbands, vice chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University

Despite the burgeoning student engagement technology market we’ve seen above, so far many universities have been unable to harness these tools fully. A lack of knowledge of these products and their potential is one factor – and one that Jisc and Emerge Education are seeking to correct.

The necessary staff management and skill development when bringing in a new technology also takes time, effort and resource. While staff digital skills have increased enormously as a result of the pandemic, there is also currently a risk of ‘new tech fatigue’.

“Just deploying technology, and expecting staff to engage, never works. You have to take staff with you on that journey, for them to invest in developing the new skills.  This means staff must be convinced about the benefits especially in terms of delivering a better student experience and outcomes and/or improving their own experience. As well as articulating the benefits, staff must be given the time to understand and incorporate the technology into their way of working. Fundamentally, this is about delivering a well-planned change management programme that evidences the benefits, adopts a clear approach to communications and allocates sufficient resources.”
Professor Ebrahim Adia, pro vice-chancellor (academic leadership), University of Central Lancashire

Involving students also takes time but is equally essential. The multiplicity of stakeholders in universities can also prove a challenge to tech startups when producing potential solutions for engagement problems – how do you keep all parties on board?

On the strategic side, a lack of data integration – bringing together disparate sets of information – is currently impeding progress. In HE, IT has tended to evolve in an organic way, resulting in piecemeal, siloed systems rather than a holistic picture. The result is many individual point solutions, but few common standards and limited operability.

“At the moment we have this quite fragmented landscape where we talk about learning analytics, curriculum analytics, wellbeing analytics, health, data, and all of those things. But, actually, you can't separate learning analytics from wellbeing analytics. We need to reach the point where we’re integrating analytics to get more comprehensive sets of information – analytics 4.0.”
Martin Hall, professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town, formerly vice-chancellor of the University of Salford and analytics specialist - quoted in Student and staff wellbeing (pdf)

Interoperability is no longer a purely technical issue. Rather, the need for information to flow easily between systems is so paramount that it requires better strategic leadership and an organisational culture that recognises its importance.

Legacy IT stacks in typical universities are also a blocker, with a need to accelerate development away from them and concentrate on investment that adds value to students and staff.

Finally, universities continue to go down the path of (re-)inventing tech tools themselves and making the same mistakes, instead of pooling resources and experiences.

Part three: Steps to progress

We suggest five steps university leaders can take to be in a stronger position to exploit the benefits of technology for student engagement more fully.

1. Introduce a digital strategy

The UK higher education sector moved rapidly in March 2020 to adopt new technologies, tools and ways of working at pace. Now, the need for longer-term strategic thinking about how digital technology is used in universities is clear. But what has been achieved so far has mostly been about adding new tools to old pedagogy rather than general digitally enabled education across the board, including student engagement. The challenge now is to integrate digital into the core university strategy.

Further reading: Digital at the core: A 2030 strategy framework for university leaders (pdf) (October 2020)

2. Invest in technically capable staff and skills at all levels

This includes senior leaders, digital leaders, academic staff and professional services staff.

According to Jisc's teaching staff digital experience insights survey 2020 (pdf), motivation among staff is high, with 95% of teaching staff saying they either enjoyed trying out new and innovative technologies or were comfortable using mainstream technologies and 79% saying they felt motivated to use technology in their teaching practices. Yet there remains a digital capabilities gap.

There are opportunities for universities to build on the progress made so far by ensuring all staff have sufficient time to innovate, to be creative and to develop their practice within an organisational culture that recognises and rewards these endeavours. Across the board, the digital environment and infrastructure require further investment, more resource is needed to support staff to develop best digital practices; and strategic leadership is vital in driving digital transformation.

3. Share experiences and good practice

The pandemic saw an increase in universities sharing their experiences, what was working and what wasn’t. This needs to continue and be extended. Sector bodies have a role to play here, particularly Jisc and Advance HE, in convening opportunities to discuss, collate practice and support communities of practice.

The Association for Learning Technology's (ALT) annual survey 2020/21 identified student engagement as the key driver for learning technology adoption and development for staff for the past five years. Staff are motivated to share experiences and good practice and there is a value in engaging beyond institutions and making the most of professional bodies such as ALT, UCISA and others in order to build on the momentum.

4. Coordinate approaches to finding solutions where there are currently none

The research model of collaboration, in which a small group of universities share staff and funds to develop shared technologies and learned experiences, could usefully be carried over into this space. And, of course, this process must be designed with students in partnership from the outset.

5. Empower student experts

Some universities have recognised that, when it comes to mass rollouts of technology, there are experts on hand in the form of the student body itself.

For example, in March 2020 the University of Leeds recruited a taskforce of students it trained to buddy up with staff and provide live technical support during remote teaching. The students also worked on the helpdesk, answering emails from staff and students about all aspects of remote teaching. The scheme proved to be such a success that its role has been expanded, more students were recruited and it is also now supporting the digital education service with online courses. More universities could follow this example.

Q&A with Anish Bagga, Unitu

Unitu is an award-winning online platform that offers a new way for educational institutions to listen and engage with the student voice, making it easy for student unions and university staff to collect, represent and act upon student feedback. Unitu creates an environment for students and staff to engage in real-time discussions that bring about concrete improvements to the student experience.

How do you define student engagement?

‘Student engagement’ is a vast and multifaceted topic, with many layers, approaches and perspectives. It’s continuously evolving and being rethought and redefined. However, two views have become apparent in my experience working at Unitu and with university leaders.

"The first is on students’ engagement with their educational experience. This is a common theme we see on our platform. It can range from topics such as attendance and engagement within the classroom, the timeliness of handing in and gaining feedback on assessments and the quality of work they produce, to name just a few. Such topics fall under how students engage with their teaching and learning experience.

"The second view, where our experience and focus lie, is students’ engagement with feedback and student voice channels. For instance, how engaged are students in providing feedback on their experience? Or how willing are students to participate in the co-creation process, such as redesigning a programme with staff? This type of student engagement is constantly evolving and requires numerous stakeholders’ input on all levels across the university."

What are the key challenges in student engagement?

"A fundamental challenge is that applying a one size fits all approach to engaging students is an ineffective strategy when you have an increasingly diverse study body. Whether part time or full time, postgraduate or undergraduate, commuter or campus-based, each type of student will experience university differently. This means that a targeted strategy to engage them will need to be designed with their specific context in mind.

"As for engaging student voices, there are several barriers. The initial obstacle is that students lack awareness of the existing channels to give feedback.

"Then, if students are aware, we’ve discovered that the feedback channels typically lack one or all three elements that support students to give feedback. Firstly, students require a safe space to share their feedback without the fear of being judged or singled out for their opinion. Secondly, for students to engage, they need to see that the feedback channel ‘works’: that feedback is valued and engaged with by staff. The third element is that feedback needs to be acted on in a timely manner. A delay in closing the feedback loop creates disengagement and apathy.

"At Unitu, we’ve seen departments overcome these challenges by embedding visibility and transparency into the student feedback processes. Transparency builds stronger communities of trust between students and staff, leading to a significant increase in student engagement. When students see how other students’ feedback is being valued and acted on, it creates confidence that their voice will be heard."

Why is this even more important now?

"When you combine the impact of the pandemic on the student experience, the increasingly diverse student body and issues surrounding mental health, it’s clear there needs to be a strategy that ensures all students have a safe space to be heard throughout the year.

"Although traditional methods, such as surveys and SSLC meetings, have their advantages, I believe they are inadequate to capture the ongoing student experience in this new environment.

"In addition, today’s student generation thinks and experiences the world very differently from the students of past generations. What worked for yesterday’s students won’t necessarily work for today’s students. The current generation wants to make an impact. They are motivated and empowered to create change and engage in activities that have purpose and meaning. If you provide students with the opportunity to take ownership of their educational experience and give them a platform to be heard, they will embrace it."

How extensive is the technology landscape in this area?

"If you search ‘student engagement software’ on Google, there will be thousands of different solutions that promise to improve student engagement in different ways.

"Student engagement is vast, and each type of technology focuses on different aspects of engaging students within the student lifecycle and journey. For instance, there are tech solutions around helping students to pick their course and university. There are solutions for engaging students within the classroom, platforms to support students with accessing their readings, and apps helping students improve their mental health. The list is endless and continues to grow, and the demand has accelerated due to the pandemic.

"However, the choice is far more limited within the field of student voice, specifically in regards to closing the feedback loop, which is one of our core focuses at Unitu. We are the only organisation to design a purposefully built platform for higher education that amplifies all student voices and helps staff close the feedback loop."

What's holding universities back from harnessing technology more?

"In my 10 years of studying and working with universities, I’ve found university leaders are increasingly more open to using technology, yet implementing is a much slower process.

"Of course, the pandemic has accelerated this process, but more out of necessity than anything else. I see two types of barriers that continue to hold universities back from harnessing technology: internal barriers (ie within the university) and external barriers (ie the technology provider).

"When it comes to internal barriers, the biggest hurdle is to overcome staff resistance or lack of staff buy-in. This can be at the senior, middle management or academic level. When you have staff resistance to adopting technology, the takeup becomes almost impossible. Another internal obstacle the autonomy of departments and faculties. In terms of harnessing technology, it’s challenging to create a consistent and scalable way to engage students across the university when departments exist in silos and prefer to do things their way rather than taking a more standardised approach.

"The external barriers come down to whether the provider and product can tick all the boxes. Several key questions need to be answered - does the product fulfil our user requirements? Is there a clear business case for this product? Does it enable integrations? Is it GDPR compliant? Are there data security policies in place? Is the technology accessible to all students? Can they demonstrate the value we want through case studies with other institutions?

"Startups must work closely with universities to understand their struggles, create solutions that cater to them, and address their specific needs. Failing to do so inhibits their adoption within the university."

Is more strategic direction needed to avoid the silos and make technology uptake more widespread?

"It depends on the technology and who the stakeholders and users are. In our case, which unusual for many edtech providers, Unitu is a multi-stakeholder platform, including stakeholders and users such as senior management, middle management, academics, course reps, students and students’ unions.

"In our case a more integrated and strategic direction will always be encouraged to avoid silos but, more importantly, help make the technology uptake more widespread.

"As much as the strategic direction needs to come within, tech providers can also help to encourage more widespread technology uptake. For instance, at Unitu, we hold monthly check-in calls and ad-hoc Q&A sessions for staff interested but sceptical about using the platform. Such sessions tend to address any misconceptions, doubts and concerns and are an excellent opportunity to establish rapport and trust with staff and encourage widespread uptake."

What needs to happen to make progress?

"If technology uptake is going to increase, there needs to be integrated and strategic direction that demonstrates how the technology benefits each stakeholder on all levels. This is a critical step in getting buy-in from stakeholders and enabling better adoption of the technology.

"I’d also recommend clear alignment and transparency among stakeholders on the reasons behind embedding the technology, how and who will be using it operationally and defining clear measures of success.

"Edtech in higher education is still unfamiliar territory for many in the sector. It’s essential to build trust and confidence with our stakeholders to make progress. We need to view the relationship between the technology provider and university as a genuine and authentic partnership. There are learnings to be had on both sides. We believe that a successful partnership is built on a willingness to collaborate and co-create together."


Emerge Education and Jisc would like to thank all the contributors to this long read for their time and expert insight.

Thanks and acknowledgements

In particular, we would like to thank David Maguire and everyone who so kindly spared the time to be interviewed for a case study during an exceptionally busy time for all involved in higher education. Thank you.

  • Professor Ebrahim Adia, pro vice-chancellor (academic leadership), University of Central Lancashire
  • Sue Attewell, head of edtech, Jisc
  • Anish Bagga, CEO, Unitu
  • Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor, Falmouth University
  • Russell Crawford, director of learning and teaching, Falmouth University
  • Mary Curnock-Cook, chair of Emerge Education’s HE Network
  • Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University
  • David Maguire, interim vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex and former chair of Jisc
  • Andy McGregor, director of edtech, Jisc
  • Chris Newson, chair, The Student Room
  • Susie Palmer-Trew, CEO, University of Northampton students' union
  • Nick Petford, vice-chancellor and CEO, University of Northampton
  • Anne Poulson, director of transformation, University of Hull (formerly COO, University of Greenwich)
  • Megan Price, president, Worcester students’ union
  • Tim Quine, deputy vice-chancellor, University of Exeter
  • Ben Vulliamy, chief executive officer, university of York students' union

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