Skip to content
Talis Aspire

How data and Talis Aspire helped the University of Hertfordshire adapt to online delivery

Natalie Naik
Management Information

A quick pivot to supporting online delivery has been a universal challenge for library teams in recent weeks. In this article we speak to Graham Davies, Head of Academic Resources at the University of Hertfordshire to find out more about their data projects, how this has been affected by COVID-19, and how they have managed their shift to online.

Can you tell us a bit about your role and your day-to-day interactions with Talis Aspire?

I work in the department of Library and Computing Services, comprised of 3 teams; the Academic Engagement team (outward-facing library staff in a subject liaison role, they maximise use of resources in curriculum), the Content Collections team (they focus on procurement, getting resources and enabling access to them), and our Research and Scholarly Communications team (who don’t interact much with Talis Aspire on a day to day basis).

I imagine things are a little different at the moment, can you tell us about your shift to online course delivery?

In recent weeks, we’ve had to pivot very quickly in terms of online delivery. We had a reading week to start with, that allowed staff to have a week to prepare before we launched into delivery.

From the library side, our online reading lists in Talis Aspire have been an absolute godsend in the sense that they have provided the scaffolded and contextual access to reading for students.

Because it’s embedded into the guided learner journey concept we have created (that involves the Virtual Learning Environment and Talis Aspire), it has not been a challenge to ask students to change their behaviour. They are already engaged with their module sites on the VLE and the reading available through that.

The challenge for us has been around making electronic copies available where we haven’t had that provision to date. We have been buying e-first for quite a while now, so it’s not new in the sense that we are starting to transition to electronic content, what’s new is that we’ve started to hit issues around the licensing aspect, particularly around where we might have been reliant on print coverage to pick up the slack where we have only had small numbers of concurrent licensing.

How have you been using data in Talis Aspire during this time?

Reading lists data has helped us enormously in this space, one of the reports we were able to create was to find out how many items we have got flagged as essential on a reading list that we only had print copies for.

We were able to pull that off very quickly and it has gone on to form the backbone of some of the conversations with e-textbook providers that have been approaching us with free access to resources for a limited period. We’ve then been able to give them a very focused list of things we were interested in. In response to this we got about 500 texts back from various suppliers, we used an API to then insert the links into the appropriate items on the reading lists.

In terms of making students aware, rather than engaging in a separate communications exercise, we’ve linked each of those items into the appropriate link of the record on the reading list, flagged with some text to say “access to this has been temporarily granted”. Students, then, are looking in the same place and in the same way for the information, they are just getting access to different copies.

Working out how to manage the set up (and the removal at some future point) of this has been a challenge. We have also set up a reading list solely for all of those new items that we have access to, for staff and students, as a starting point for them to access resources they wouldn’t have been able to before, to help them with online learning and teaching.

Without having engaged our academics to complete their reading lists, and provide context around the resources, we wouldn’t have been able to do the reporting task so quickly. It would have involved a much longer conversation with our academics, which would have been difficult because at that point in time they were snowed under with work on how to transition other aspects of their teaching online.

Have you had to change your approach at all during this time?

We did spot a gap in a specific area. We hadn’t always captured the switch to using set texts in an assessment, so obviously the license requirement for a particular book or information source is very different if you are just using it to support something like an essay or routine coursework, but there is no reliance on that for an exam or end of term assessment.

What we’ve found with the switch to online learning is more open-book exams, which are being delivered virtually. So, we are in an environment now where potentially a large number of students need access to an item, there was an example where 400 students needed access to a resource for an exam that we only had 7 concurrent licenses for. That wouldn’t have been captured in the context of the reading list, as that’s not why it was added in the first place, so the sudden shift has left us with a few gaps that we need to find solutions to.

In this case we have had to go back to academics, and create online forms, and so on, so they could let us know what they needed very quickly, to help us go on to have those conversations with the suppliers. Again, thinking back, not sure how we would capture that, it’s something we need to consider moving forward.

What has been important for us and something we are starting to see requests for is information around usage of our service. As a library we are very visible on campus, as a bunch of people in a library we are very visible. If you take that away, and people are reliant on your online delivery, that visibility potentially decreases.

How does data play a role in that exercise?

It has been important for us during this period to be able to pull off data about usage, how people are using the service in this new environment and then to make sure we report that back into the institution, both to reassure people that we are providing an online service to staff and students and equally to demonstrate the value of what we do.

One of my colleagues has been doing this with Talis Aspire Advanced Management Information System, pulling data and rendering it with Tableau to give us a detailed picture of how our service is being used. He’s found this useful in terms of creating separate dashboards that just show usage over this lockdown period, and he’s added date filters to scale in on this specific period, where we may not have put them on previous dashboards. We can start to extract the information in a way that reflects different time periods to get an understanding of how people are using our resources.

That has been useful, and equally quite interesting in the sense that we haven’t had massive spikes in terms of usage of the service. This is reassuring in one sense, in that as a service that provided electronic resources, we were very well embedded in the community anyway and we’ve managed to maintain that level of usage even in these uncertain times.

I suspect there is more work for us to do in terms of evaluating, looking at those reports and looking at the data in a bit more detail to learn lessons from this moving forwards.

We know that you were working with the Centre for Academic Quality, the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience and the Director of Learning and Teaching Innovation which resulted in the piloting of new metrics and reports required by Programme Periodic Review. How have those metrics and reports been revised in the light of COVID-19 planning?

It’s early days. We’ve produced dashboards answering questions around whether information resources are suitably embedded in the curriculum and if we are getting engagement from our students with those. This helps us when we are reviewing whether our programme has met its aims and is being delivered in an appropriate way, as we have some actual data that we can look at. In the past we may have relied on more anecdotal evidence, so we can now start to back that up.

We are currently offering to provide a report for a particular meeting so that people can consider this evidence when making decisions, but, I think what we are moving toward is more about how you can use the data more dynamically throughout the provision of the programme instead of leaving it until the time to review.

The question is then, how do you embed the usage of the data and the evaluation of the data on a more regular basis through the consumption of the programme and how do you tweak things as you go along.

We are almost at that stage now, and the academic quality teams are seeing the value of that, but they are asking us to take that back into the programme design, and into the programme discussions and use it to evolve the delivery of the programme as it is happening.

How have you been working with other teams to bring that project to life?

It’s seen as a collaborative process of us working with academics. We are considering where we sit in that process. Are we on the quality side, evaluating things, or seen as partners by the academics in terms of we are helping with the learning and teaching through the provision of information resources, helping them assess the impact of those?

It’s not a piece of work that is completed, it’s fairly fluid and we are still trying to work out the best ways of getting the data out to different audiences with the different nuances. Although it’s on hold at the moment, there’s probably a role for it as we start discussions around what next year’s teaching might look like. It could help us consider what changes are going to be required to support whatever happens based on what rules are dictated from the government.

What’s next with data at the University of Hertfordshire?

Data for learning is a project that we’ve got on the go at the moment where we are looking to provide data to staff and students about how they are getting on. We are focusing on engagement data at the moment. We’ve got a pilot running where we are engaging with a module per academic school and we are providing a dashboard to staff that flags up a set of engagement data related to their students.

It’s designed to support personal tuition, the idea being that you are giving the personal tutor data to show whether a student is doing well or otherwise, and allows them to have that conversation with their personal tutee.

We’ve got some Talis Aspire data in there and book loans data, so it’s about scaling that up now, so we can roll out an improved personal tuition model across the university. We are also looking at a paired down student dashboard as well, using engagement data from Talis Aspire and elsewhere that will feed into that.

We are also getting aggregated data about the use of information resources and how it embeds into the curriculum to individual schools of study. We’ve been working on school profiles and templates that show information that people can interact with, whether that’s at the programme level, module level, school level, or for different years of study.

We’ve been working hard on those in the last two years and have been using them formally with different schools, so the challenge for us over the next couple of years is now getting those embedded into the daily life of those academic schools. We want to arm liaison staff with this information so that they can communicate more widely with academics and be more data-driven in terms of engagement with them. It should also help with understanding where we can focus our efforts in terms of face-to-face activity and where we need to direct more online support. The aim is to be using the data to shape our services and allocate resources appropriately across the team.

How important is a joined-up approach when working with data across multiple areas of the university?

It’s crucial. For example, we were doing the report to find resources we needed to provision as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t have the full picture. Extracting just the data from the reading list on its own would have given us lots of data, but also included things from modules that had run and finished, and were not necessarily in high demand for the period we needed to provide immediate provision.

That’s where you can pull on other data sources to build a more accurate reflection of what’s happening now, like timetabling data to give us a more accurate picture of what was required. Having those additional sets of data from other systems allows you to sanity check what you are doing, provides the context and can allow you target your resource on what is needed at that time.

It’s all about context. That is what we find the academics want, if you can provide information about what is happening with a programme, with all the right context, that is where you can get engagement.

Any final reflections on the shift to online?

The volume of work my team has got through in the last few weeks has been unprecedented, especially when you throw in the challenges around remote working, it’s been an interesting time.

I want to recognise that whilst you’ve got all the systems set up, and they do make life easier, I think understanding the human side of it is key. Workflows, allocating work appropriately, thinking on your feet with new ways to use the system, they have all been challenging but certainly something I’ve been reflecting on is how adaptable everyone has been so that we have been able to provide an excellent service online for staff and students. So, a massive thank you from me to everyone in the Academic Resources team for working so brilliantly under very difficult circumstances.


Thank you to Graham for contributing this interview to the Talis Informer. 

Graham is Head of Academic Resources, part of Library and Computing Services, at the University of Hertfordshire. His role involves oversight of the Academic Engagement, Content and Collections and Research and Scholarly Communications Teams.

This post was originally created for the Talis Informer, a quarterly newsletter from Talis aimed at those leading and influencing Higher Education libraries. If you’d like to receive the newsletter, please get in touch at For even more content and discussion, join the Talis Informer mailing group here.

More from the blog