25 Years of EdTech: 2014 – Learning analytics

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Data, data, data. It’s the new oil and the new driver of capitalism, war, politics. So inevitably its role in education would come to the fore. Interest in analytics is driven by the increased amount of time that students spend in online learning environments, particularly LMSs and MOOCs. Although not a direct consequence, there is a definite synergy and similarity between MOOCs and analytics. Both brought new people into education technology, particularly from the computer science field. I think we can be a bit snooty about this, what are all these hard core empiricists suddenly doing in our touchy-feely domain? But if the knowledge exchange is reciprocal, then this evolving nature of ed tech can be one of its strengths. The reservations arise when it is less of a mutual knowledge sharing and more an aggressive take-over.

The positive side of learning analytics is that for distance education in particular, it provides the equivalent of responding to discreet signals in the face-to-face environment: the puzzled expression, the yawn, or the whispering between students looking for clarity. Every good face-to-face educator will respond to these signals and adjust their behaviour. In an online environment, these cues are absent, and analytics provides some proxy for these. If an educator sees that students are repeatedly going back to a resource, that might indicate a similar need to adapt that resource, offer further advice, etc.

The downsides are that learning analytics can reduce students to data and that ownership over the data becomes a commodity in itself. Let’s face it, the use of analytics has only just begun, and the danger is that instead of analytics supporting education, analytics becomes education. The edtech field needs to avoid the mistakes of data capitalism; it should embed learner agency and ethics in the use of data, and it should deploy that data sparingly.

One of the benefits of thinking about analytics might be simply better communication to students. Navigating the peculiar, often idiosyncratic world of higher education with its rules and regulations can be daunting and confusing. By considering useful dashboards for instance, the complexity of this is surfaced. In this study, simply telling students what degree they were on course for was deemed remarkably useful. It transpires that calculating this for yourself is remarkably difficult, which highlights itself how HEIs can do a lot to simplify and expose their workings for students.

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