This week, Ryan Baker posted a link to a piece, co-written with George Siemens, that is meant to function as an introduction to the fields of Educational Data Mining (EDM) and Learning Analytics (LA). “Educational Data Mining and Learning Analytics” is book chapter primarily concerned with methods and tools, and does an excellent job of summarizing some of the key similarities and differences between the two fields in this regard. However, in spite of the fact that the authors make a point of explicitly stating that EDM and LA are distinctly marked by an emphasis on making connections to educational theory and philosophy, the theoretical content of the piece is unfortunately quite sparse.
The tone of this work actually brings up some concerns that I have about EDM/LA as a whole. The authors observe that EDM and LA have been made possible, and have in fact been fueled, by (1) increases in technological capacity and (2) advances in business analytics that are readily adaptable to educational environments.
“The use of analytics in education has grown in recent years for four primary reasons: a substantial increase in data quantity, improved data formats, advances in computing, and increased sophistication of tools available for analytics”
The authors also make a point of highlighting the centrality of theory and philosophy in informing methods and interpretation.
“Both EDM and LA have a strong emphasis on connection to theory in the learning sciences and education philosophy…The theory-oriented perspective marks a departure of EDM and LA from technical approaches that use data as their sole guiding point”
My fear, however, which seems justified in light of the imbalance between theory and method in this chapter (a work meant to introduce, summarize, and so represent the two fields), is that the tools and methods that the fields have adopted, along with the technological- and business-oriented assumptions (and language) that those methods imply, have actually had a tendency to drive their educational philosophy. From their past work, I get the sense that Baker and Siemens would both agree that the educational / learning space differs markedly from the kind of spaces we encounter in IT and business more generally. If this is the case, I would like to see more reflection on the nature of those differences, and then to see various statistical and machine learning methods evaluated in terms of their relevance to educational environments as educational environments.
As a set of tools for “understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs” (solaresearch.org), learning analytics should be driven, first and foremost, by an interest in learning. This means that each EDM/LA project should begin with a strong conception of what learning is, and of the types of learning that it wants to ‘optimize’ (a term that is, itself, imported from technical and business environments into the education/learning space, and which is not at all neutral). To my mind, however, basic ideas like ‘learning’ and ‘education’ have not been sufficiently theorized or conceptualized by the field. In the absence of such critical reflection on the nature of education, and on the extent to which learning can in fact be measured, it is impossible to say exactly what it is that EDM/LA are taking as their object. How can we measure something if we do not know what it is? How can we optimize something unless we know what it is for? In the absence of critical reflection, and of maintaining a constant eye on our object, it becomes all too easy to consider our object as if its contours are the same as the limits of our methods, when in actual fact we need to be vigilant in our appreciation of just how much of the learning space our methods leave untouched.
If it is true that the field of learning analytics has emerged as a result of, and is driven by, advancements in machine learning methods, computing power, and business intelligence, then I worry about the risk of mistaking the cart for the horse and, in so doing, becoming blind to the possibility that our horse might actually be a mule—an infertile combination of business and education, which is also neither.