Leveraging data science and human expertise for student success

Neil Pearson
27 July 2023

For many ambitious students, pursuing a global education is a life-changing decision. It opens doors to new opportunities, broadens perspectives, and equips them with the skills and knowledge to thrive in an increasingly globalised world.  

Yet with so many study options available, and access to both in-person support and online support, how can students confidently navigate this journey and make informed decisions that set them up for success?  

For me, working in international education over the past 20 years has been a great privilege, and these days it feels like an even bigger responsibility. 

The expectations from students and institutions regarding customer experience and speed of delivery have permanently shifted. While you could be forgiven for thinking that this increase in speed and delivery could be traded for personalised, human support, we believe our students still need, and deserve, both. 

For the past 50 years IDP has been committed to putting students first by providing unbiased advice. At the heart of our approach lies the trusted relationship between our counsellors, students and their families.  

Fast-forward to 2023, our industry is undergoing a transformation driven by data science and technology, enabling us to offer more tailored recommendations and fast-track the student application process.  

So, in a world where students expect a seamless and personalised customer experience, how do we strike the right balance between technology and human support? And perhaps more importantly, how can we, as an industry, ensure the advice students receive is unbiased, fair and truly positions them for success? 

Using data science to guide students in a responsible way   

In today's data-driven world, data science is essential in guiding students on their international education journey. However, it is crucial that we approach this responsibility with transparency, inclusivity and a deep understanding of student needs.  

At IDP we have embraced data science as an enabler to empower students, while keeping their voices at the centre of our decision-making process.  

Through voluntary fortnightly feedback sessions, known as ‘labs’, we engage with students from across 26 countries, allowing them to share their goals, desires, challenges and needs. This input helps shape our innovations, making our data-driven initiatives responsive to diverse student needs. 

We also look back through our extensive data history on previous students’ preferences and placements to identify trends and opportunities, helping prospective students make informed decisions. Our market scans, such as Crossroads, Horizon and Emerging Futures, provide a comprehensive understanding of emerging goals and challenges in the international education landscape.  

This holistic approach, combining our extensive database of millions of data points with real student stories, allows us to provide fair, honest and trustworthy AI-based recommendations. 

The result is that students receive faster, more personalised and more transparent information about their study options, including courses they may have previously believed were out of their reach.  

Following this, students receive support from one of our 2,200 expert counsellors worldwide, who benefit from the automation of administrative tasks like document management.  

This automation means counsellors have more time to engage in meaningful conversations with students, addressing important issues like mental health, cultural nuances and cost-of-living preparation. These are the conversations that matter, and that can help a student thrive both inside and outside the classroom. These are the types of conversations that shouldn’t be automated.  

A diversity of voices at the table 

While technology is a key tool for IDP, our highly skilled and personable global team members remain key to our success in student placement. Our customers come from diverse backgrounds and so too do our people, located in more than 35 countries around the world. 

In recent years, criticism of artificial intelligence (AI) has focused on the lack of diversity in programming, highlighting the risk of bias when programmers share similar backgrounds and perspectives.  

We are aware of this. And that is why we built our AI model differently and responsibly.  

We have safeguards in place to maintain integrity in our data and AI-based recommendations. At every stage of our data collection, a variety of voices contribute to ensure that our data science-based programs and recommendations are representative of our global student base and are tailored to each country.  

This diversity improves our data-matching process, reducing wait times for students and providing strategic insights at every level of our organisation.  

But what does this all mean?  

Ultimately, it means a better customer experience for our students that guarantees immediacy and prioritises their best interests.  

By leveraging data science and embracing diverse perspectives, we are not only meeting the rising expectations of students but also prioritising better student outcomes. Between FY20 and Q3 FY23, our investment in technology, with a focus on AI integrity and trusted human connections, resulted in an 11-point increase in our Net Promoter Score (NPS), ultimately enhancing the overall customer experience.  

Our teams are all driven by purpose and dedicated to transforming students’ lives through global access to education and careers.  

Each counsellor, many of whom have studied abroad themselves, is committed to providing aspiring students with a multi-dimensional approach, using all available tools to support their success. It is these one-on-one conversations with each student that help break any bias that might exist. When there is a high-stakes decision involved, there will always be human interaction from IDP. We treat every student as an individual. 

We are excited about the future and will continue investing in new technology to make the global dreams of our students a reality, with our counsellors firmly by their side.  

In a world where the ethics, benefits and risks of AI are still being explored, it is exciting to be part of an organisation that uses technology as a means to enhance human connections, not replace them. 

As we navigate the evolving landscape of international education, let’s embrace the power of technology as a tool for progress, ensuring that human connections remain at the heart of everything we do. By striking this balance we can create an environment that leverages the strengths of both technology and human expertise, empowering students to make informed decisions and succeed in an ever-changing world.

Neil Pearson is Chief Digital Officer for IDP Education, a global leader in education services.