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Top marks for new student apps from DfE competition

The Department for Education's Higher Education Open Data Competition has come a long way since its launch in June 2018. The shortlisted finalists - the game The Way Up developed by The Profs, and ThinkUni developed by AccessEd - will be releasing the beta versions of their products imminently. There have been numerous challenges along the way. At launch, the competition faced a lot of questions about the focus on earnings after education, challenging the definition of the 'value' of higher education courses.

Working with DfE, we held a series of informal Q&A sessions around the country, followed by an innovation day in Leeds. There was clearly an appetite for developing tools to help students navigate the often complex system of higher education courses. Out of the vigorous discussion and debate, various other aspects of higher education were identified as being potentially important to choosing where and what to study. Quality of student housing, the cost of living, availability of entertainment. Combined with the Longitudinal Education Outcome (LEO) data that was a requirement of the competition, there was the potential to make a truly comprehensive tool for students to help them find the courses that best matched their career aspirations and guide them to the best university for them.

So what do the two shortlisted finalists have to offer for the students of tomorrow?

In a combined project-review-user-testing session at ODI Leeds on 19 February 2019, both finalists were asked to report on their progress, think about the next steps after the products had their soft launch, and then spend the afternoon refining their products with a fresh-faced group of young people who would be the target audience. Folk from Department For Education, Office for Students, AGCAS, and the ODI were present for the morning.

For the morning session, The Profs were first to show a demonstration of their product 'The Way Up' and describe some of their challenges. Beginning as a service to help students find academic help, The Profs have rich experience with the higher education system. Their product - called The Way Up - is a gamified journey through life as a potential graduate, beginning with character creation and setting your qualifications. This then builds up different possible career paths. For example, art and maths at A-Level could point towards architecture. There are different sections to complete to progress through the game, and the challenges faced by students were not confined to just choosing courses. Some tasks ask you to balance a budget, choose between socialising and academic success, get married, etc. At the end, you are presented with a final scorecard which summarises your earnings and your happiness based on life choices.

Much of this demo (and the playtest version for the afternoon) was made possible with a combination of dummy data and datasets such as LEO. The Profs were open about some of the data challenges they have faced, namely that slight variations in 'course requirements' could affect the suggested courses (they suspect that accurate data exists but not publicly available), and tariff bands.

For those of you interested in game mechanics and gamification, The Profs have spent time exploring the different approaches to player progression and how to get young people to think about their choices in the game. Replay is an important factor - they assume that players will be quite slow on the first playthrough, getting used to how the game works, etc. On repeat playthroughs, players can then explore other options. For instance, if they are working with predicted grades, what difference does that make to course recommendations? Which choices increase happiness? There was also consideration given to 'slowness' - giving players enough time to weigh up their options without feeling pressured to rush through the game.

AccessEd followed with their product Think Uni, which aims to act like a digital careers advisor. Users are asked to input their exam results (or predicted results) and complete an initial survey, where specific questions can be weighted. For example, the answers from questions about lifestyle and affordable student housing could be more important to the user than the answers from questions about university achievements or fees. Once the suggested universities have been generated (currently capped at 9), users can then dive further in to the data, looking at predicted earnings, cost of living, etc. For AccessEd, part of the challenge has been 'feature creep' - how to stop themselves from adding lots of features (all of them useful but not necessary at this point).

When asked about plans to publish any open data as a result of the product, AccessEd were optimistic. They had also thought about potential uses for some of the data that gets collected, especially the student preferences.

The user testing cohort - a brilliant group of young people from a mixture of secondary schools, sixth form, colleges, and universities - arrived and were split into two groups. They each tried one product, gave feedback, and then switched.

The user testing all complete, the young people were released into the wild to enjoy the rest of their half-term. The Profs and AccessEd, gained valuable insight from the user testing and are already taking forward some of the great suggestions from the groups.

A fantastic day of user testing. We've already compiled over 60 changes to our project; everything from the game's design, interface and even our approach to data-handling has been influenced by the feedback! - Richard Evans, The Profs

Thanks to the ODI for providing another opportunity for user testing. The feedback from students has led us to clarify the questions that Think Uni asks and helped us to refine a key part of the user experience. - Simon Coyle, AccessEd