The recent two day seminar on Learning Analytics, organised by the Dutch SURF academy, brought some interested parties from different education institutions and vendors together. While stimulating in its presentation, the seminar mainly presented technical showcases. What got somehow left behind were relevant pedagogic showcases and a feeling of how receptive the teaching practitioner community is to this kind of innovation. Are we running again into the old pattern of being technology driven?
Some interesting showpieces included tools to elicit what I would call educational business analytics (as opposed to learning analytics). To some extent these were not really new, as business reporting systems on student grades, drop-out figures, and the likes have existed for many years, albeit that they are mainly available to university registrars. It is not yet clear what these figures do to teaching and learning when presented to teaching staff instead of administrators, but this would be a novel approach.
Here are some notes that came to my mind while listening to the presentations:
- LA tools are a bit like a cooking thermometer or oven thermostat. It doesn’t give you an indication of what meal a person is preparing or whether it will taste good or not, but it may be a vital (on-demand) instrument to determine the right action at the right time to get it done.
- How do we avoid teachers being turned into controlers, sitting like Homer Simpson in front of a dashboard and control panel looking at visualisations of their students’ datasets? Does an increase in such activities reduce their contact time with students?
- One common assumption I noted is the belief that all students are ambitious and only aim for top grades and the best learning experience. Being a father and having seen a few student generations, I contest this assumption. Many, if not most students, just want to pass. Studying isn’t in fact what they perceive as the prime focus of their lives. Tactical calculations that students are used to doing (how often can I still be absent; what’s the minimum mark I need for passing, etc.) maybe ‘prehistoric’ forms of Learning Analytics that have existed for as long as assessments have been around!
I find it quite ironic how the UK government announces tighter controls over social networks after the recent riots in England. This comes after years of high-brow outspoken criticism of governments in the Ukraine, Iran, Egypt, etc. on their interference with free speech by trying to suppress online social communication of citizens protesting and rising up against the establishment (for different reasons). With the announcement, the West has lost the moral high ground they tried to portrait while things were running smoothly.
Without losing myself in politics, what concerns me is the picture that emerges of the Internet today and tomorrow. What can we expect when we turn to our browsers? Surely, in some dark and very secret corner, Intelligence Agencies have not only collected data about users, and created backdoor controls to large software portals like Google or Facebook which allows them to monitor our conversations. ISPs too are increasingly under pressure and forced to censor Web traffic as a recent court ruling against BT has shown. It starts with the ongoing battle on piracy, but there are actually many Websites that some people wish to disappear, e.g. Greenpeace or other activist sites, not to mention fundamentalist propaganda.
As if this wasn’t enough, leaving the Web to free market forces, challenges net neutrality through the monetary power of a handful of big players. The preferential treatment of traffic may lead to a Web where organisations with deep pockets get all the attention. Imagine where this leaves democracy, when it comes to marketing smaller political parties before an election. But it isn’t even only the browser developers or the brand companies that are the bad guys, as recent findings on search traffic hijacking show us.
What these developments indicate is that we are no longer only dependent on the secret algorithms from Google that lead us from query A to website B. More and more, our web queries bounce in unknown ways around the web with perhaps unpredictable and unexpected outcomes, monitored by data companies and intelligence services. The danger is that our web experience declines from what we want to see to what others want us to see or not to see!