Liquid modernity & learning analytics: On educational data in the 21st century

I was recently interviewed for a (forthcoming) piece in eLearn Magazine.  Below are my responses to a couple of key questions, reproduced here in their entirety.


eLearn: You have a Ph.D. in Philosophy. Could you share with us a little about your history and your work with learning analytics?

TH: What drives me in my capacity of a philosopher and social theorist is an interest in how changes in information technology affect how we think about society, and in the implications our changing conceptions of society have on the role of education.

I think about how the rapid increase in our access to information as a result of the internet has led to the advent of what Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity.’ In contrast to the world as recently as a half century ago — a world defined by hard and fast divisions of labor, career tracks, class distinctions, power hierarchies, and relationships — the world we live in now is far more fluid: relationships are unstable, changes in job and career are rapid, and the rate of technology change is increasing exponentially. The kind of training that made sense in the 1950’s not only doesn’t work, but it renders students ill-prepared to survive, let alone thrive, in the 21st century.

When I think about our liquid modern world, I am comforted to know that this is not the first time we have lived in a world of constant change.  We experienced it in Ancient Greece, and we experienced it during the Renaissance.  In both of these periods, the role of the teacher was incredibly important.  The Sophists were teachers.  So were the Humanists.  For both of these groups, the task of education was to train citizens to survive and thrive under conditions of constant change by cultivating ingenuity, or the ability to mobilize a variety of disparate elements to solve specific problems in the here and now.  For them, education was less about training than it was about cultivating the imagination, and encouraging the development of a kind of practical wisdom that could only be gained through experience.

It is common among people on analytics circles to use a quote apocryphally attributed to Peter Drucker: “What gets measured gets managed.” Indeed, when we look at the history of analytics, we can find its origins in the modern period immediately following industrialization, concerned with optimizing efficiency through standardization and specialization.  Something that has worried me is whether or not there is a mismatch between analytics – an approach to measurement with roots in early modernity – and the demands of education in the 21st century, when students don’t need to be managed, so much as prepared to adapt.

Is learning analytics compatible with 21st century education?

I believe the answer is yes, but it requires us to think carefully about what data mean, and the ways in which data are exposed.  In essence, it means appreciating the analytics do not represent an objective source of truth.  They are not a replacement for human judgment.  Rather, they represent important artifacts that need to be considered along with a variety of other sources of knowledge (including the wisdom that comes from experience) in order to solve particular problems here and now.  In this, I am really excited about the kind of reflective approaches to learning analytics being explored and championed by people like John Fritz, Alyssa Wise, Bodong Chen, Simon Buckingham Shum, Andrew Gibson, and others

eLearn: You wrote in an article for Blackboard Blog that “analytics take place at the intersection of information and human wisdom”. What does it mean to consider humanistic values when dealing with data? Why is it important?

TH: I mean this in two ways.  On the one hand, analytics is nothing more and nothing less than the visual display of quantitative information.  The movement from activity, to capturing that activity in the form of data, to transforming that data into information, to its visual display in the form of tables, charts, and graphs involves human judgment at every stage.  As an interpretive activity, the visual display of quantitative information involves decisions about what is important.  But it is also a rhetorical activity, designed to support particular kinds of decision in particular kinds of ways.  Analytics is a form of communication.  It is not neutral, and always embeds sets of particular values.  Hence, it is incumbent upon researchers, practitioners, and educational technology vendors to be thoughtful about the values that they bring to bear on their analytics, and also to be transparent about those values so that they can inform the interpretation of analytics by others.

On the other hand, to the extent that analytics are designed to support human decision-making, they are not a replacement for human judgment.  They are an important form of information, but they still need to be interpreted.  The most effective institutions are those with experiences and prudent practitioners who can carefully consider the data within the context of  deep knowledge and experience about students, institutional practices, cultural factors, and other things.

As artifact, analytics is the result of meaning-making, and it informs meaning-making.

eLearn: Do you think that institutions are already taking advantage of all the benefits that learning analytics can offer? What are their main challenges?

TH: No.  The field of learning analytics is really only six years old. We began with access to data and a sense of inflated expectation.

The initial excitement and sense of inflated expectation actually represents a significant challenge.  In those early days, institutions, organizations, and vendors alike promise and expected a lot.  But no one really knew what they had, or what was reasonable to expect.

Mike Sharkey and I recently wrote a series of pieces for EDUCAUSE and Next Generation Learning on the analytics hype cycle, in which we argued that we have entered the trough of disillusionment and have begun to ascend the slope of enlightenment (see HERE & HERE).  Many early adopter institutions were excited, invested, and were hurt. We are at an exciting moment right now because institutions, media, and vendors are beginning to develop far more realistic expectations. We know more, and can now start getting stuff done.

Another major challenge is adoption.  It’s easy to buy a technology.  It’s harder to get people to use it, and even harder to get people to use it effectively.  Overcoming the  adoption challenge is one that involves strong leadership, good marketing, and excellent faculty development.  It also requires courage.  Change is hard, and initially even the most successful institutions encountered significant flak.  But what we see time and time again that a well-executed adoption plan that emphasizes value while assuring safety (should never be punitive) very quickly overcomes negativity and sees broad-based success.

Lastly, a major challenge that institutions have is being overwhelmed by the data, and losing sight of the questions and challenges they what to address.  It is important to invest in data access so that you have the material you need to understand and address barriers when they arise, but questions should come first.

The Trouble with ‘Student Success’

I’m increasingly troubled by ‘student success,’ and am even somewhat inclined to stop using the term entirely.

The trouble with ‘student success,’ it seems to me, is that it actually has very little to do with people. It’s not about humans, but rather about a set of conditions required for humans to successfully fill a particular role: that of a student.

So, what is a student?

A student (within the context of higher education, and as the term is employed within student success literature) is someone who is admitted to an institution of higher education, is at least minimally retained by that institution (many colleges and universities require at least 60 non-transferred credit hours in order to grant a degree), and graduate with some kind of credential (at least an Associate’s degree, but preferably a Bachelor’s). The student is the product of higher education. It is the task of colleges and universities to convert non-students into students (through the admissions process), only to convert them into a better kinds of non-students (through the graduation process). The whole thing is not entirely different from that religious process whereby an individual must first be converted from an a-sinner (someone who doesn’t grasp what sin is) into a sinner (they need to learn what sin is, and that they have committed it) in order to be transformed into a non-sinner through a process of redemption.

The language of ‘student success’ assumes that ‘being a student’ is an unmitigated good. But being a student is not a good in itself. The good of being a student is a direct consequence of the fact that being a student is requisite for attaining other higher goods. Having been a successful student is necessary in order to become a good worker. From the perspective of the individual, having been a successful student translates into being able to get a better job and earn a higher salary. From the perspective of a nation, a well-educated populace translates into an ability to meet labor demands in the service of economic growth. If this is the end of being a student, then, shouldn’t we talk about ‘Worker Success’? Replacing ‘student-‘ with ‘worker-‘ would retain every feature of ‘student success,’ but with the advantage of acknowledging that a post-secondary degree is not an end in itself, but is rather in the service of something greater. It would be more honest. It might also have the effect of increasing graduation rates by extending the horizon of students beyond the shoreline of their college experience and out toward the open sea of what will become something between a job and a vocation.

But I find the idea of ‘worker success’ still troubling in the same way as ‘student success.’ As with ‘student success,’ ‘worker success’ speaks to a role that humans occupy. It refers to something that a person does, rather than what a person is. As with being a successful student, being a successful worker implied having satisfactorily met the demands of a particular role, a set of criteria that come from outside of you, and that it is incumbant upon you to achieve. A successful student is someone who is admitted, retained, and graduates and so it is unsurprising that these are the measures against which colleges and universities are evaluated. A successful institution is one that creates successful students. Pressure is increasingly being put on institutions to ensure that students find success in career, but this is far more difficult to track (great minds are working on it). A successful worker is one who earns a high-paying job (high-salary serving as a proxy for the amount of value that a particular individual contributes to the overall economy).

What if we were to shift the way that we think about student success, away from focusing on conditional and instrumental goods, and instead toward goods that are unconditional and intrinsic? What if we viewed student success, not as an end in itself, but rather as something that may or may not help human beings contract their full potential as human beings? Would it mean eliminating higher education as it is today? I don’t think so. I’m not a utopian. I readily understand the historical, social, cultural, and material conditions that make school and work important. To the contrary, shifting out perspective toward what makes us human may in fact serve to underline the importance of an undergraduate education, and even of that piece of paper they call a degree. To the extent that an undergraduate education exposes minds to a world of knowledge, at the same time as it provides them with an opportunity to earn a good wage means that they are freed from the conditions of bare life (i.e. living paycheck to paycheck) and can commit their energies to higher order pursuits. Considered in this way, the importance of eliminating achievement gaps on the basis of race. ethnicity, gender, income, etc is also increased. For these groups who have been traditionally underserved by higher education, what is at stake in NOT having a post-secondary credential is not just a wage, but also perhaps their potential as human beings. At the same time as it make higher education more important, considering the student journey from the perspective of human success also opens up legitimate alternative pathways to formal education through which it is also possible to flourish. Higher education might be a way, but it might not be the way. And that should be okay.

I don’t know what this shift in perspective would mean for evaluating institutions. As long as colleges and universities are aimed at producing student-graduates, their reason for being is to solve a tactical problem — “how do we admit and graduate more students” — and they can be evaluated empirically and quantitatively by the extent to which they have solved the problem. The minute that colleges and universities start to reconceive their mission, not in terms of students, but in terms of humans, their success becomes far more difficult to measure, because the success of students-as-humans is difficult to measure. By thinking of education as a way of serving humans as opposed to serving students, our task becomes far more important, and also far more challenging.

But since when were the Good and the Easy the same thing?

Why I Take Attendance

An interesting conversation has been taking place on one of the listservs to which I subscribe. What began as an innocent query about available apps for tracking attendance, has quickly transformed into a discussion about why attendance should be taken in the first place. There have been questions about the extent to which ‘seat time’ is really an effective way of measuring participation, and discussions of other more administrative reasons for why tracking attendance might be important (i.e. institutional policies about seat monitoring, student loan conditions, etc). What is lacking in these discussion, however, and the reason why I take attendance in my classes, is a more humanistic perspective.

attendance-logoAttendance2 and Attendance by David M. Reed

It may seem paradoxical, since more often than not attendance functions as a quantitative measure of participation (not a good measure of participation, mind you, but at least it can be determined with a reasonable amount of precision), but the reason that I take attendance has to do with establishing relationship with my students. Especially during the first few classes (okay, lets be honest…several…or more), it is helpful to perform role call as a way of learning student names, particularly in large classes when there are a lot of names to remember. Sure, this memory game can be won more quickly through other means (i.e. flash cards with photos, wither taken by the instructor or on file with the registrar), but there are several other benefits to role call, benefits that cannot be achieved strictly through study.

For the last couple of years, I have been using an iPhone/iPad app called simply Attendance, by David M. Reed. What I like about Attendance is its ease of use, intuitive interface, ability to import from *.csv, Dropbox sync, and photo integration (yes, flashcards still have their place). As of the writing of this post, however, I have become aware of a new version of Attendance, Attendance2, which was favorably reviewed by Brian Croxall in a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/attendance2-an-update-for-the-attendance-app-for-ios-devices/41850. In spite of the fact that I am relying on what is now an old version of Reed’s software, the benefit of using an app for attendance has been proven time and time again. If we accept what I have said about the more relational aspects of attendance-taking, it should be fairly obvious that the actual recording technology has little to no impact on the achievement those inter-personal outcomes. Where it does have a demonstrable impact, however, is in the reduction of the number of paper scraps floating around (not so much an environmental issue, and an issue of tidiness), and ease of record keeping. Furthermore, apps like this also enable the instructor to go beyond merely checking ‘present’ or ‘absent,’ but also make it easy to record the condition of an absence, in addition to making quick notes about a student’s participation.

In calling out each student’s name (the most beautiful word in the world, let’s recall, is one’s own name), the instructor is able to accomplish even just a little bit of rapport. In calling out each student’s name, the instructor may extend a kind of personal welcome: “John Doe?…oh, hi John. I’m glad you are here.” In this sense, attendance is not simply a requirement of success in the course, but also an extension of the spirit of hospitality. What of those students that are not present? Well, I do my best to extend my hospitality to them as well. “Jane Smith?…No?…I’m sorry she is not here. She made an insightful comment on the discussion board that I want to talk about today.” For a student to know that they are present in the teacher’s eyes, even if absent, is likely to increase, not just the chances of their physical presence, but the quality of their participation as well.

The practice of talking attendance can also function as an effective way of gauging the ‘temperature’ of the room. Asking whether a student is present is a call to which every student can respond, and respond with certainty. If the teacher pays close attention to the response of each student, and has attended to the quality each response in the past, it becomes possible to establish a baseline (albeit an anecdotal one) according to which the instructor can assess the student’s preparedness and excitement about the course material for that day, but also their mood. This is the kind of thing that more sophisticated analytics attempt to achieve by mapping performance onto dispositional and performance indicators, but that, at the end of the day, is actually exceedingly difficult to quantify. If the instructor is attuned to the moods of individual students, and to the mood of the class as a whole, then they will be better equipped to deliver their course material in a way that is optimal to that particular time and place.

All this has been to say that attendance does not need to be strictly a quantitative component of a course grade, but it may also be a way of reaching out to each student individually at the start of class, indicating that they are individually valuable to that particular classroom environment, and increasing student engagement as a result.

Exposing Humanism: Prudence, Ingenium, and the Politics of the Posthuman

Journal of Historical Sociology CoverI am pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Exposing Humanism: Prudence, Ingenium, and the Politics of the Posthuman” in the Journal of Historical Sociology. The research for this paper was funded by the Laney Graduate School at Emory University and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship. I would like to thank Professors Donald Phillip Verene, Ann Hartle, Cynthia Willett, and Debolina Roy, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and encouragement on earlier drafts of this article. Lastly, thank you to Samuel Timme, Sarita Alami, and Stephen Harfield for their helpful comments in the final stages of this manuscript’s preparation.

Abstract

This article examines posthumanism and its relationship to humanism. First, it is argued that the term “posthumanism” relies upon an incomplete conception of humanism, and in a way that forecloses the possibility of looking to the humanist tradition for support. Addressing Foucault’s often quoted comments about the recent invention and imminent demise of man, it is argued that Foucault is not anti-humanist, but is rather critical of the use of humanism as an axis of reflection. Second, the posthumanist perspective is summarized as attending to a set of interrelated ethical and epistemological concerns. Calling into question the boundary between human and nonhuman animals, posthumanism also challenges the primacy of empirico-deductive reasoning and advocates a re-legitimization of rhetoric as a mode of thought. Lastly, using Ernesto Grassi’s interpretation of the early Italian humanists, this article demonstrates not only the compatibility of Renaissance humanism with posthumanist concerns, but also the fruitfulness of this tradition as a conceptual resource. Although the Renaissance notion of ingenium, the ability to adapt and make concrete situations meaningful without also affirming strong ontological commitments, is absent from posthumanist discourse, it is a concept that has the power to enrich the posthumanist project. Consequently, posthumanism is not actually at odds with the humanist tradition in general, but rather only with a very limited and relatively recent conception.