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.

Learning to be Human from the Center of the Internet

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.