The ultimate student challenge

clip_image001For most lucky people, the beginning of April normally brings a bit of a bounce to the step with the prospect of a chocolate-filled Easter break, and just further round the corner, hazy scents of mown Summer lawns and barbeques wafting in the warm air. However, for poor students all over the UK, this time of year is about as welcoming as a cold cup of tea. April only means one thing: dissertation deadline!

With my year at Microsoft now approaching its last leg, daunting emails from my academic tutor have been creeping into my inbox regarding dissertation topics for next year. What to write about? How to make a thorough analysis? How to find and analyse my own original primary data?

Well, the answers, certainly for the last two questions on my mind, became apparent last week when I was introduced to Power BI for Office 365 in Education.

The answer is Power BI

Power BI is a sensational tool which is used by academic institutions to unlock useful data to help, for example, improve student retention through better engaging with students. Essentially, institutions like businesses use Power BI in education to find trends in data to better their processes. However, I think Power BI could equally be of incredible value to students, particularly in carrying out data research and interpretation for a thesis, dissertation or school project. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Power BI, in a nut shell, it runs on Office 365 apps Excel and SharePoint, offering a familiar environment for educators and students to find data, track and illustrate trends, which can then easily be shared.

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The gooey centre

Plunging into the core features of Power BI, I'll illustrate those which I think would make Power BI an invaluable student tool. First of all, Power Query is a feature which allows students to find data sources both internally and externally which can then be manipulated. One of the most challenging things for students is gathering good primary and secondary data for serious reports, which is why Power Query bedazzled me when it was demoed to me.

STEP 1) Source data - To illustrate, if a student was researching trends in eating habits amongst teenagers in the UK, they would type their request in the 'Search box' and Power Query would enable them to gather data from anywhere, for example external government websites, whereupon the data would automatically be slotted into Excel. This would save students oodles of laborious data entry time!

STEP 2) Manipulate data - with the data safely slotted in Excel, the student can then go on to edit the categories and filters, moulding the data in line with their dissertation aims.

STEP 3) Analyse data - Once categorised appropriately, the student can figure out trends for their analysis. They can use another Power BI feature Power Q&A to type in a natural language query against the data to explore trends. To highlight, the student could type "what percentage of 13-15 year olds prefer fast food?" and the data would reveal an answer: ex it was found that 62% of teenagers in the UK between the ages of 13 and 15 prefer eating fast food.

STEP 4) Illustrate data - Once the student has found some interesting trends, they can use Power View to illustrate their data with charts and visual graphs. The beauty of Power View is that once graphs or charts have been drawn, say the student wants to pinpoint the trends of one demographic against another, they can click on one demographic within an illustration, for example the orange demographic of the pie chart below (see Image 1), which will then filter the data specification in all the other illustrations (see Image 2).

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Power View Image 1

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Power View Image 2

Power Map

I want to flag one final feature, Power Map which would light up any presentation or report with a geographic data illustration. Power Map beautifully plots your data on an interactive 3D global map, perfect for presenting 3D tours of your location-based data. I can imagine this being a really useful feature for students who have found geographical trends on data. Returning to our UK food example, a power map would clearly illustrate which cities in the UK have the highest percentage of fast-food consumption amongst 13-15 year olds in the UK.

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Make your students more employable!

What's more, being proficient in Power BI would set up students with highly desirable analytical skills for the increasingly competitive job market. Anything to get them ahead of the game in my opinion would set your institution apart. A recent survey has disclosed that this year alone, there is a 33% increase in applications for graduate schemes, with hundreds of thousands of students applying for jobs each year. This is highly competitive and students are thus looking to differentiate themselves from their peers in as many ways as possible.

To help you understand how useful skills in Power BI could be for graduating students to employers, I'll give you a glimpse into how it is used in business. Power BI is used by organisations in a business context to find and manipulate data to improve the way they run their business through spotting trends. To illustrate, online clothes retailers would use Power BI to calculate trends in their cavernous pool of user data, such as what styles individuals are prone to purchasing, and then use that information to flag each individual browser with targeted shopping suggestions which would hopefully increase their revenues.

Just imagine how impressed an employer (particularly for analytical roles) would be if the candidate was able to talk in an interview about their own practical experience and understanding of analytical enterprise-grade software, Power BI!