Learning Analytics as Teaching Practice

Too often, it seems, conversations about learning analytics focus too much on means, and not enough on ends. Learning analytics initiatives are always justified by the promise of using data as a way of identifying students at risk, in order to develop interventions that would increase their chances of success. In spite of the fact that the literature almost always holds such intervention out as a promise, a surprising lack of attention is paid to what these interventions might look like. A recent paper presented by Wise, Zhao, and Hausknecht at the 2013 Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK’13) goes a long way in putting learning analytics in perspective, taking some crucial first steps in the direction of a model of learning analytics as a pedagogical practice.

Analytics About Learning

Analytics ABOUT Learning

Like so many, I often find myself being sucked into the trap of thinking of learning analytics as a set of tools for evaluating learning, as if learning and analytics inform one another as processes that are complementary, but nonetheless distinct. In other words, it is easy for me to think of learning analytics as analytics ABOUT learning. What this group of researchers from Simon Fraser University show, however, is that it is possible to think of learning analytics as a robust pedagogical practice in its own right. From analytics ABOUT learning, Wise, Zhao, and Hausknecht encourage us to think about analytics AS learning.

Analytics AS Learning

Analytics AS Learning

The paper is ostensibly interested in analytics for online discussions, and is insightful in its emphasis on dialogical factors, like the extent to which students not only actively contribute their own thoughts and ideas, but also engage in ‘listening’-type behaviors (i.e. thoughtful reading) that would engender engagement in community and a deeper level of discussion. More generally, however, two observations struck me as generally applicable to thinking of learning analytics as a pedagogical practice.

1. Embedded Analytics are also Interventions

Wise et al make a distinction between embedded analytics, which are “embedded in the discussion interface and can be used by learners in real-time to guide their participation,” and extracted analytics, which involve the collection of traces from learning activity in order to interpret them apart from the learning activity itself. Now, the fact that student-facing activity dashboards are actually also (if not primarily) intervention strategies is perhaps fairly obvious, but I have never thought about them in this way before. #mindblown

2. Analytics are Valued, through and through

By now we all know that, whatever its form, research of any kind always involves values, no matter how much we might seek to be value neutral. The valued nature of learning analytics, however, is particularly salient as we blur the line between analysis (which concerns itself with objects) and learning (which concerns itself with subjects). Regardless of the extent to which we realize how our use of analytics reinforces values and behaviors beyond those explicitly articulated in a curriculum, THAT we are using analytics and HOW we are using them DO have an impact. Thinking carefully about this latent curriculum and actively identifying the core values and behaviors that we would like our teaching practices to reinforce allows ensure consistency across our practices and with the larger pedagogical aims that we are interested in pursuing.

Wise, Zhao, and Hausknecht identify six principles (with which I am generally sympathetic) that guide their use of analytics as, and for the sake of, pedagogical intervention:

  1. Integration – in order for analytics to be effectively used by students, the instructor must present those analytics are meaningfully connected to larger purposes and expectations for the course or activity. It is incumbent upon the ‘data-driven instructor’ to ensure that data are not presented merely as a set of numbers, but rather as meaningful information of immediate relevance to the context of learning.
  2. Diversity (of metrics) – if students are presented with too few sources of data, it becomes very easy for them to fixate upon optimizing those few data points to the exclusion of others. Sensitive also to the opposite extreme, which would be to overload students with too much data, it is important to present data in such a say as to encourage am holistic approach to learning and learning aims.
  3. Agency – students should be encouraged to use the analytics to set personal goals, and to use analytics as a way of monitoring their progress relative to these. Analytics should be used to cultivate sutonomy and a strong sense of personal responsibility. The instructor must be careful to mitigate against a ‘big-brother’ approach to analytics that would measure all students against a common and rigid set of instructor-driven standards. The instructor must also act to mitigate against the impression that this is what is going on, which has the same effect.
  4. Reflection – encouraging agency involves cultivating habits of self-reflection. The instructor should, therefore, provide explicit time and space for reflection on analytics. The authors, for example, use an online reflective journal that is shared between students and instructor.
  5. Parity – activities should be designed to avoid a balance of power situation in which the instructor collects data on the students, and instead use data as a reflective and dialogic tool between the instructor and students. In other words, data should not be used for purposes of evaluation or ranking, but rather should be used as a critical tool for the purpose of identifying and correcting faults or reinforcing excellences.
  6. Dialogue – just as analytics are used as an occasion for students to cultivate agency through active reflection on their behavior, the instructor should “expose themselves to the same vulnerability as the students.” Not only should instructors attend to and reflect upon their own analytics, but do so in full view of the class and in such a way as to allow students to criticize him/her in the same way as s/he does them.

References

Learning to be Human from the Center of the Internet

Tubes
Image by Flickr user public-sector-lists.com | governmentlists
Attending strictly to the more phenomenological aspects of the internet, it is easy to fall into a kind of idealism.  Zygmunt Bauman (2005), for example, has argued that the era of space has come to an end, that the extraterrestrial realm of cyberspace has broken away from the realm of places and, consequently, social life has become reconfigured in such a way as to privilege decentralization, mobility, and fluidity over the centralized institutions, rigid borders, and stable relationships.  Increasingly, it is argued, the material world is becoming irrelevant as we live more and more in a utopia, a ‘no place’ where identities are as liquid as the virtual planes they navigate.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum argues that our everyday experience of the internet (as a ‘cloud,’ for example) obscures the fact that the world wide web actually depends upon a physical infrastructure that is located in space, adapted to geography, and surprisingly vulnerable to human error, environmental conditions, and general decay.  In fact, among the more shocking discoveries made by Blum is that, in contrast to the distributed network envisioned in the 1960’s, the contemporary internet is actually made up of a relatively small number of major centers connected, at times, by what seems like only the thinnest of threads. Suffice it to say, attention to the physical infrastructure of the world wide web paints a very different picture from the infinite and eternal cloud that we experience as users each time we open a browser.

In uncovering the hidden materiality of the internet, Tubes helps to raise some interesting pedagogical questions. On the one hand, there is a strong contemporary tendency to praise advances in web-based technology for allowing us to offload knowledge functions and focus, instead, on cultivating the imagination. The goals of education are less and less about delivering content, and more and more about empowering students to seek out relevant information necessary to finding innovative solutions to emergent problems. The world wide web is powerful because, like never before, it allows us to create new worlds and, explore a seemingly infinite range of potentialities. On the other hand, however, I wonder if obscuring (or simply forgetting) the physical and technological infrastructure that makes the world wide web possible doesn’t actually end up promoting a particular set of philosophical perspectives, namely, idealism.

Idealism is a philosophical perspective according to which the greatest amount of reality is given to the immaterial. For Plato, sensible things are real only to the extent that they participate in the forms. For Berkeley, all of our sense experiences are caused by God. For Kant, our knowledge about empirical reality is mediated and made possible by the basic structures of consciousness. To the extent that we ignore the material infrastructure supporting the world wide web, and as we increasingly incorporate web 2.0 technologies into the classroom that aim to be as transparent as possible (facilitating productivity and creativity without also making it obvious that we are using tools–transforming tools into prosthetics), are we tacitly encouraging an idealistic view of the world? Does a failure to educate students about the solidity and vulnerability of the internet as an infrastructure contribute to an ethics that values minds over bodies? Technology is not value neutral. The world wide web is not merely a tool for learning and communicating, but rather also actively reinforces certain world views at the expense of others. By shining a light on the material side of the internet, Tubes effectively brings the body back, reminds us that even our spiritualized identities in cyberspace are dependent on space and place. Ironically, in considering the more technical components of the internet, its vulnerabilities and dependencies, its greasy and dirty underside, we are perhaps reminded of the same qualities in ourselves, and so reminded of what it means to be human, tubes and all.


REFERENCES
Bauman, Z. (2002). Society Under Siege. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York, NY: HarperCollins.