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How one department raised its NSS Student Voice scores by 14% in just over a year

The student voice platform Unitu will be used by all ten departments in UCL Engineering, UCL Institute of Education and UCL Medical School by start of session 2019/20

24 May 2019

For three years, UCL Computer Science has been trialling a new tool to improve the way the department captures and responds to student feedback.

The department credits the platform, ‘Unitu’ (pronounced yoo-nee-too), with helping them to create a more engaged community, through a much more dynamic process to address issues that affect the student experience.

Dr Graham Roberts, who was the Computer Science Departmental Tutor during the pilot project, says: “Thanks to this platform, last year we were able to respond to students’ issues usually within 48 hours. We believe this intervention has led our Student Voice NSS scores to increase by 14% in 2018 compared to the year before”.

By the start of session 2019-20 all ten departments in UCL Engineering, UCL Institute of Education and UCL Medical School will be using Unitu.

What is ‘Unitu’ and how does it work?

According to their website, the Unitu platform provides ‘a transparent way to collect and act on representative student feedback in real time.’ However, Chris Neil, Head of UCL Engineering’s Digital Innovation Unit (DIU), says:  “The easiest way to think of it is like a social community for students with a built-in issue tracker for staff”.  

Unitu is a tool that students can use to raise issues, concerns, or other matters for discussion with their peers, to their Academic Representative, and to the department. It allows students to discuss and vote on matters they want to be escalated to the department for attention, including academic and non-academic matters. This enables the department to consider and, where necessary, act promptly to address these concerns, and for students to see the decisions and action that has been taken.

Students raise four different types of posts (issues, questions, ideas or praise) and these are shared across the community to garner further feedback in the form of comments and votes.  When individual posts have collected sufficient (representative) feedback the Student Reps can escalate them to a ‘departmental board’ where staff can see and interact with them directly.
When raising an issue, students are also prompted to suggest a potential solution for the problem; this seems to enhance the feeling of partnership in improving education and reduces the student/staff gap.

What are the main benefits to of using Unitu?

Support the student rep system

Dr Graham Roberts, who was Computer Science Departmental Tutor during the pilot project, explains, 'We have Unitu set up so that all taught students (UG & PG) are registered at the start of the academic year, and use it to run the student rep elections – this is a really good feature and has worked very effectively for getting students involved in the student rep process, giving a uniform and reliable way of running elections that all students can straightforwardly participate in. Once elected the reps then identify issues to flag up, and monitor/moderate the student-only discussion area. We have found that the student area, which staff cannot access, has resulted in much more student discussion about teaching, and provides a very effective way for the student reps to keep in touch with the student body.'

Improve response times

Previously student feedback was generally received via email and responses sent back to students individually. With Unitu, staff are able post replies and solutions back for the whole student community.  Students are alerted to new responses automatically by the system (they can adjust the frequency to suit their preference) making it easy to keep everyone informed of progress on important issues.  This means staff are much more responsive to feedback and deal with issues before they worsen as often happens if they aren’t flagged until the next Staff Student Consultative Committee meeting.

Inform SSCC meetings

One of the Programme Administrators at UCL Engineering mentioned they are using Unitu to prepare for SSCC meetings by engaging students, and resolving some of issues even before the meeting itself; they then append Unitu logs to SSCC minutes.

Improve transparency

During the course of the pilot Graham Roberts identified other advantages: 'Another important benefit is that once an issue is raised all students can see the responses and how an issue has been resolved, making things a lot more transparent.'

Collecting feedback transparently across the whole student community also saves effort for Student Reps who would otherwise have to find other ways to poll and gather feedback from their peers. The platform has helped empower Student Reps,to reach out and engage their respective student cohorts more effectively.

What were the pilot participation rates?

After the initial pilot project with Computer Science, five more departments in the Faculty of Engineering Sciences followed the same process of adopting the system. These 6 departments have about 4000 students.  By the end of the year the platform had recorded 34,331 interactions (views, posts and votes) with 2,190 students engaging and 87 staff across the faculty responding to the feedback; this is a steep increase in participation compared to traditional forms of communication and the improvement in NSS scores in those departments reflect this.

What did the students in the pilot department think of Unitu?

After a two term pilot in 2016-17, one thousand participants were surveyed to determine whether it had made a difference to their year or not. For Chris Neil it was the culmination of over a year’s worth of planning and coordination.  “I remember posting the question on the platform, and wondering what would come back.  Having worked in the Computer Science Department for five years, I was well aware of the volume of emails that both administrative and academic staff receive and how it could be tricky to manage student feedback and the hope was that this new platform could really help.”

The question was simple: 'Do you think we should continue using Unitu?' Within hours, the results came back from the student community. Of the comments received, responses included:
'Yes 100% [we] should carry on using it.'
'It has definitely improved the communication gap between students and staff.'
'I feel like out of all the efforts to improve communication between students and staff, this has so far been the most effective.'
'It provides a transparent and visible complaint and feedback mechanism for students.'
'It has really helped make feedback more transparent.'
'More action has been taken as result of students voicing issues and resolutions have been reached faster.'

What were the challenges?

Building staff capacity

Staff had to invest time in learning to use the system to benefit from its ease of use and time saving features.  This required regular support sessions and demonstrations.  The Unitu team organised webinars, demos and other training sessions, which greatly helped UCL staff and students using the platform effectively.

Building student engagement with the system

For Unitu to work, enough students need to sign up to the system to make it representative. This means that we had to do quite a lot of engagement – through Student Reps but also directly to students through teaching teams.  We found that by promoting and incorporating it into induction processes right at the start of session, more students were encouraged to sign up.

Making clear the scope of the system

Unitu aids to track issues that relate to the programme/student experience as a whole. Requests for teaching materials for a particular module, or personal queries should still be resolved with the relevant lecturer or personal tutor ideally by posting via the module's Moodle discussion forum.

Culture shift

Unitu is effective only where there is already an established culture of student engagement – if a department is already listening to students and maintaining an ongoing dialogue then the platform supports those processes by enabling transparency, fast responses and status updates.

What are the next steps?

By the start of session 2019-20 all ten departments in UCL Engineering, together with the UCL Institute of Education, will be using Unitu. It is proving to be an effective way of identifying and escalating issues, communicating on progress and solutions (‘closing the loop’) and supporting the partnership between student reps and departmental staff.

Chris Neil’s DIU team are currently running two projects looking at more varied engagement with Unitu:

  • Closing the loop: a project with Matteo Fumagalli (seconded from Brain Sciences) to investigate how best to use Unitu to keep students informed about progress and change in response to their feedback; and
  • Building Community: a project with Garance Mourgaud (seconded from UCL Mechanical Engineering) to engage with student reps and societies across Engineering to improve and enhance the student experience.

How can colleagues find out more about Unitu at UCL?

Visit the website: www.unitu.co.uk
Contact Chris Neil c.neil@ucl.ac.uk or Matteo Fumagalli matteo.fumagalli@ucl.ac.uk