bim2 – Registering a new student feed

Apart from the many todos, the last post covering bim2 development left off at the task of registering a new student feed. Summarising/recording the development of bim2 to complete that task is the purpose of this post.

Finally getting back into bim2 development (30 Jan), this post dormant for weeks.

What has to happen

The process for bim, which I’d like to re-create in bim2, goes something like this

  1. Student submits the URL for a blog or a feed;
  2. Display error messages and advice if the URL is not a URL, can’t be retrieved, or a valid ATOM/RSS feed can’t be obtained from the URL.
  3. For a valid URL, retrieve the feed and cache it
  4. Compare the posts in the feed with the set questions for the activity.
  5. Update the bim_marking table with any posts that match.
  6. Update the bim_student_feeds table with the details of the feed.

In bim this was done with a bim specific version of Simplepie. In Moodle 2, simplepie is included and Moodle 2 also has a wrapper around simplepie that is used by the Moodle external blogging functionality. bim2 should use this wrapper as much as possible.

How does the Moodle 2 simplepie wrapper work?

It’s located in ~/lib/simplepie/ and implemented as a class called moodle_simplepie. Methods include

  • constructor that takes a feedurl
  • get_cache_directory and reset_cache
    By default this is a central cache, wonder if bim should reset this to a course specific/bim specific cache?

There’s another class moodle_simplepie_file, am wondering if this is the one to actually use, it knows about Moodle’s version of curl. Its methods include

  • constructor;
    Takes a url, timeout value, redirects, headers, useragen…

I wasn’t aware of it, but simplepie does have a class (or two), which the above two extend.

Some sample code from Moodle and its external blog feature follows.

$rssfile = new moodle_simplepie_file($data['url']);
$filetest = new SimplePie_Locator($rssfile);

if (!$filetest->is_feed($rssfile)) {
    $errors['url'] = get_string('feedisinvalid', 'blog');
} else {
    $rss = new moodle_simplepie($data['url']);
    if (!$rss->init()) {
        $errors['url'] = get_string('emptyrssfeed', 'blog');

SimplePie_Locator is being used to test if there is a valid feed. It appears that moodle_simplepie_file might do some auto-detection. Should check that.

No, it doesn’t. Assumes that the url is for the rss feed rather than using simplepie’s autodetect.

Now, if I use moodle_simplepie, instead of moodle_simplepie_file, there is the possibility of getting a feed. However, it seems to be getting the wrong one. In my testing I am using this blog as the test, and instead of the posts feed, moodle_simplpie is returning the comments feed.

Does this happen if I use simplepie directly? No, if I use the version of simplepie included with Moodle 2 correctly, I can auto-detect.

$url = '';

//$rssfile = new moodle_simplepie($url);
$rssfile = new SimplePie();
$rssfile->set_feed_url( $url );
print "<h1> feed is " . $rssfile->subscribe_url() . "</h1>";

Gives the appropriate output feed is (though it also gives a couple of warnings about the cache. Change it to

$url = ‘;;

$rssfile = new moodle_simplepie($url);
print "<h1> feed is " . $rssfile->subscribe_url() . "</h1>";

And I’m getting feed is This isn’t right.

Okay, getting an error at the moment with the operation timing out, the joys of a slow network connection. And that’s the problem…… Still a problem with moodle_simplepie_file, nothing really explains the difference


Okay, a few weeks have gone by while I finish the thesis etc. Time to get back into it again. During the break, I did hear via a tweet that the RSS client block does do auto-discovery. So that gives another place to look for example code.

This looks like is

$rss =  new moodle_simplepie();
// set timeout for longer than normal to try and grab the feed

Actually, that’s the wrong stuff. Instead of _NONE it should be _ALL and that works.

Gotta love it when a plan comes together. Now to remove the debug stuff I stuck in the Moodle simplepie code.

Using this in bim2

Now to figure out how this should work within bim2. It’s been a while since I’ve been looking at this code, this should prove an interesting test. Ahh, surprisingly painless. Started work on a new_student_feed class.

Okay, that’s working. The feed is being found and bim2 is able to manipulate the feed using essentially the same simplepie functions as bim was able to.

This means I can start a new post aimed solely at the bim2 aspect.

My god, is it done?

After more years than I care to count, almost as many structures, and many, many more plans and timetables, the thesis is just about done. I have just finished stuffing around with Word and have produced a single PDF that will almost certainly be the version that is submitted.

All that is left is to figure out how to submit from a distance and sit back and wait for the judgement of the examiners.

Not entirely certain what to make of this milestone, it just seems to be yet another step in the on-going denouement of the thesis and all its intricacies. There is a sense of palpable relief in having reached this stage. There remains, however, an on-going niggle of uncertainty about whether or not Word (or my own carelessness) has inserted some enormous blunder in the middle of the thesis. There’s the small bit of fear that one of the examiners will turn out to be a mongrel. But mostly there is relief and a need to go have a good lie down.

There is also some recognition that I should knuckle down and publish from the thesis and its contents. There are at least two good journal articles waiting to be written. Two good journal articles that are likely going to have to continue waiting. Mostly because there is also significant anticipation arising from all the (non-academic) activities that now become possible as the Sword of Damocles that was the PhD has been removed.

First step, a couple of days with the better half in Melbourne next week. With the sole intent of eating, drinking and being merry.

Problems of service provision and why can’t I have a personalised class timetable?

The next step in my journey as a full-time Uni student happened today when I saw a notice announcing the draft class timetable. As a result I offer some commentary on the problems of “service” provision as the metaphor for many modern universities/organisations.

A personalised timetable

As with most universities, the one I’m studying at has spent a significant amount of money on a ERP. In this case PeopleSoft. This is the system that knows what courses I’m enrolled in and is used to manage just about every administrative aspect of what I do (pay money, exam timetable etc.). But, at least at the institution I’m enrolled in, it can’t generate a class timetable. Well, there’s something called a “class schedule” but it’s empty.

I remember back in the late 80s as an undergraduate trawling through the UQ handbook manually trying to find the times and locations for the classes for the courses I was enrolled in. On the plus side, UQ had the timetable set in stone with sufficient lead time to produce a printed handbook. The current institution has a draft timetable available a few weeks before the start of term.

Given the wonderfully expensive ERP systems it would make sense to me that I could login some system with my student number and the information system could find out what courses I’m enrolled in, compare that with the timetable information and generate me a personal timetable. Such a system would be easy to use, save all the students time and probably reduce instances of human error.

What I have to do

Instead of a personalised timetable system, I have to

  • Visit the institutional timetabling site;
  • Pick the right link for the 2011 draft timetable;
  • Pick the link for my campus;
  • Pick the link for the faculty to which the program I’m studying belongs to (assuming that I’m aware of this information); and
    Of course, I’m in trouble if I’ve enrolled in an elective that is run by the other faculty.
  • Manually search through a web page with timetable information for 145 courses for the four courses I’m enrolled in.
    This assumes that I know the course codes for the courses I’m enrolled in. Now I have to go look those up. Oh dear, all face-to-face sessions are on Mondays. 9 to 6 with an hours break for lunch, that should be fun.

Moving backwards

The funny thing is that the institution had a personalised timetable system around late 1999/early 2000. I should know, I helped write it and published a description of it in a paper explaining how to thrive with an ERP.

And it’s not as if that system couldn’t still work. The institution is still using the broader system that personalised timetable was a part of for other purposes and the personalised timetable system was designed to scrape data from a web page. Just like the one I had to manually trawl through above. It was smart enough to automatically update the timetable as the draft changed.

Why isn’t there one?

I was going to write something new about why the institution doesn’t have a personalised timetable system for students, but have decided to start with the explanation I gave in 2003

  • Mismatch between system owner and users.
    The system owner of the CQ timetabling system is CQU’s student administration division. Their major timetabling role is managing the allocation of space and time. Distributing this information to staff and students is a secondary smaller task of less importance. As a result the choice and use of the supporting information system is driven more by the requirements of the management role than the distribution role.
  • Organisational Silos.
    Contrary to CQU’s “one University” approach there is significant distance between CQU’s commercial and CQ campuses. There is even distance between the two largest commercial campuses, Sydney and Melbourne, and their smaller cousins at Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
  • Organisational Holes.
    There is no central software developer allocated to helping support divisions like student adminstration support and implement systems like timetabling (unless they hire their own). Instead most rely solely on the features of commercial packages that are known for their inability to integrate with other systems..
  • “Bad” technology.
    The software used on the CQ campuses is not designed to integrate with other software and offers limited support for the distribution of timetabling information. The system used at the commercial campuses is based on infrastructure that does not scale well.

Some of the details will have changed, but the categories are about right. Today, I would probably add in

  • Misaligned governance structures.
    The apparently rational and logical governance structure that guides information systems development at the institution is biased toward the senior managers located within the existing organisational structure.

The problems of service provision

Which brings me to the problems of service provision. A big part of the governance structures that have arisen within higher education institutions is based around the idea of service provision. That is, the faculty’s – the large organisational gatherings of academics – are clients of the service divisions (information technology, library, student administration, central L&T etc.). The aim of the service divisions’ is to provide the services requested by clients, and only those services. It’s generally the role of the governance structure to determine this process.

But there are problems, including:

  • The dumb idea;
    This is the situation where the professional within the client organisation knows that the request service is a “dumb idea”. But there job is not to question, there’s is to provide the service.
    For example, the situation where a senior academic leader will require a central L&T organisation to expend vast amounts of time and resources on a capstone course that has a design which requires students to write thousands of words of prose each week. The capstone course is delivered primarily to non-English speaking background students.
  • Gaming the client;
    The dumb idea problem and a range of other factors mean that the service divisions have to start “gaming the client”. One example of this is the under promise and over deliver tactic. ie. when important senior manager asks the job X be completed, the appropriate response is to explain how difficult and expensive job X will be to complete. This generally involves lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth before finally agreeing to try, but reinforcing that it probably can’t be done. At which stage the service provider assigns one of the junior programmers the 10 minutes required to complete the task. Once complete, and at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner the impossible task is revealed as completed.

    There is a reason why experienced service provision divisions employ special “client liaisons” who have significant similarity with used car salesmen.

  • Blame the budget;
    This one generally occurs in the 2nd half of the budget year and involves a great deal of agreement about the value and importance of the requested task before explaining how it could be done, if only we had the resources/money. This is typically followed by the suggestion of getting together to generate a joint proposal for the next budget to ensure that the necessary resources are available. The success of this budget proposal ensures the purchase of The machine that goes ping
  • The next version will do that;
    This is a special, prevalent example of “blame the budget” usually invoked with enterprise information systems. In these situations it is usually considered inappropriate to mention that simply because the next version will have this feature, that doesn’t mean the organisation will ever be able to complete the tasks necessary for the feature to be usable. For example, the “class schedule” feature in the ERP at the start of this post.
  • The thicko client liaison;
    This is where the service provider’s representative in the governance structure (either a client service manager or the head of the service provider, depending on how many other senior institutional managers are in the room) says “yea” or “nay” to some request without realising that the request is either utterly impossible (always when they said “yea, we can do that”) or is almost trivially simple (always when they said “no, that can’t be done”).

    This is why client liaison folk absolutely hate having the technical expert in the room with clients. They inject too much knowledge into the conversation.

  • Fall between the cracks;
    Since representation in the governance structure is based on the organisational structure and limited to appropriately senior folk, there are significant problems and opportunities that are never seen and fall between the cracks. This is the problem which I think the personalised timetable above suffers from.
  • Everyone is different;
    If a service provider has to deal with x clients. Then every “widget” the service provider puts in place will have x versions. One for each client. One potential example is the case of 2 student handbooks (where 2 equals the number of faculties) I mentioned previously.
  • If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    This is a particular problem when it comes to fads and fashions. For example, if the current fad is e-portfolios or iPads, then every time a client asks the central L&T division for advice, there’s a chance the answer will be “e-portfolios” or “iPads”. In the case of IT divisions the answer will almost always be one of: ERP, CRM, LMS, Data warehouse, student portal, staff portal etc.

What are the problems I’ve missed?


The above argument is not to suggest that “service” divisions shouldn’t aim to perform the tasks required by their clients. I lived through an organisation where one of the service divisions dictated too much. It’s a worse situation.

But it is to argue that the “client/service” metaphor is far from perfect. It creates a power differential that encourages, often even requires, the weaker party (usually the service provider) to work around the stronger party. It is to argue that the focus should be on developing better metaphors (e.g. teamwork, partnership), while at the same time realising that nothing will ever be perfect and it will require hard work, collaboration and good does of cynicism.

The state of educational data mining in 2009

The following is a summary and some initial reflections on the paper

Baker, S.J.D., Yacef, K. (2009) The State of Educational Data Mining in 2009: A Review and Future Visions:

It’s another reading for the first week of the LAK11 MOOC.

The format I use for these posts is that the overview section is essentially my summary/reflections on the paper. The rest of the sections are my potted summary of each of the sections of the paper.

EDM == Educational Data Mining

Disclaimer I let this post stew unfinished for a couple of weeks while I progressed the thesis. I’m posting it now unfinished. Time to move on with more recent things.


Gives a good overview/feel for the field. But as a high level description it can’t provide much detail about specific areas, but does provide the references to go digging.


  • Methodological profile of early EDM research compared with 2008/2009 research.
  • Trends and shifts include
    • increased emphasis on prediction;
    • emergence of attempts to use existing models to make scientific discoveries
    • reduction in frequency of relationship mining.
  • Examine 2 ways of categorising the diversity in EDM research.
  • Review research problems addressed by the methods
  • Lists and discusses the most cited EDM papers.


EDM field is growing, conferences, new journal. Time to review.

What is EDM?

Definition from

Educational Data Mining is an emerging discipline, concerned with developing methods for exploring the unique types of data that come from educational settings, and using those methods to better understand students, and the settings which they learn in.

Suggests EDM is different from data mining (references an in press publication of one of the authors)

due to the need to explicitly account for (and the opportunities to exploit) the multi-level hierarchy and non-independence in educational data.

Which means models drawn from psychometrics is often used in educational data mining.

Now, I don’t know enough to be comfortable that I understand that, which means I should try and following up on that publication.

BAKER, R.S.J.D. in press. Data Mining For Education (a pre-print version). In International Encyclopedia of
Education (3rd edition), B. MCGAW, PETERSON, P., BAKER Ed. Elsevier, Oxford,

EDM Methods

Drawn from a variety of fields. Two attempts to categorise the methods are introduced, but Baker (in press) is the one it goes with.

Percentages in brackets represent percentage of EDM papers (1995-2005) using the method

  1. Prediction (28%)
    • Classification
    • Regression
    • Density estimation
  2. Clustering (~15%)
  3. Relationship mining (43%)
    • Association rule mining
    • Correlation mining
    • Sequential pattern mining
    • Causal data mining
  4. Distillation of data for human judgement (~18%)
  5. Discovery with methods
    A model is developed through any process that can be validated. It’s then used in analysis or mining.

First 3 are common in data mining.

Distillation of data not widely accepted in data mining, but matches a category in the other categorisation scheme for EDM which suggests it is common in EDM.

“Discovery with methods” most unusual from a data mining perspective.

Relationship mining most prominent in EDM.

Key applications of EDM methods

EDM research come from various fields: individual learning from software, CSCL, computer adaptive testing, student failure/retention.

Key areas

  • Student models;
    Improvement of student models a key application. Models represent student characteristics. Knowing differences enables different responses which suggests improving student learning. Some enable use in real-time. Applications include (all with references): are students gaming the system; experiencing poor self-efficacy; off-task; bored.

    In terms of student failure gives three references.
  • Domain knowledge models;
    Psychometric modeling frameworks + space-searching algorithms used to develop automated approaches from data.
  • Studying pedagogical support;
    i.e. which are most effective in which situations for which students.
  • Looking for empirical evidence to refine/extend educational theories/phenomena;
    e.g. Perera et al (2009) use Big 5 theory for teamwork to search for successful patterns of interaction in student teams.

Important trends in EDM research

Prominent papers from early years

Based on Google scholar citations, look at most prominent papers

  • (1st) Zaiane (2001) was one to propose and evangelise around EDM.
  • (2nd) Zaiane (2002) – a proposal – and (4th) Tang and McCalla (2005) – an instantiation – examine how EDM methods can help develop sensitive/effective e-learning systems.
  • (3rd) Baker, Corbett and Koedinger (2004) case study of EDM methods to open new research areas. e.g. scientific study of gaming the system.
  • (5th) Merceron and Yacef (2003) and (6th) Romereo et al (2003) present tools to support EDM.
  • (7th) Beck and Woolf (2000) use EDM prediction methods to develop student models.

Shift in paper topics over the years

The demise of ALTC and why I’m not sad

So the Australian Learning and Teaching Council has got the chop. There are a lot of folk upset about this and I can understand why. A lot of people invested a lot of time and energy into ALTC activities, some/many of which had good outcomes.

My problem is that I just can’t get to excited about it. I’m not convinced that ALTC had, or could ever have hoped to have had, a significant impact on the higher education sector within Australia. This is an attempt to document some of my reasons for this.

The champion of teaching and learning?

In the ALTC response to its closure, Dr Carol Nicoll (the CEO of the ALTC) is quoted as saying

We are the champion of teaching and learning in the higher education sector.

I think that’s a pretty good summary of my main concern about ALTC’s ability to have an impact.

The quote seems to suggest that without the ALTC, there won’t be a champion of teaching and learning within higher education. Even though teaching and learning is the primary product (in terms of income) to higher education institutions. It suggests that perhaps the higher education institutions aren’t exactly committing whole-heartedly to the task of acting as champions of teaching and learning. To such an extent that there is a need for an external body to take on the role.

The fact that there is a perceived need for an external body to take on this task is the reason why I believe that such an external body can never do have significant, wide-ranging impact. This is different from saying that it can’t do good things, it can and has. It is to suggest that it probably can’t have impact on the fundamental practice of teaching and learning within Australian universities.

Why aren’t universities champions of teaching and learning?

The assumption that universities should be the champions of good teaching and learning and teaching is based on the assumption that good teaching and learning is of primary importance to the university and it members. It is my argument that this is simply not the case. I argue that the institution and its members have very different priorities which mean good teaching and learning will never be of primary importance.

Making money is paramount for the university

Steven Schwartz has a recent article in the Times Higher Education supplement that touches somewhat on this purpose. Over recent years the amount of funding from the Australian government has drastically reduced and universities have rushed to identify alternate forms of funding. If they don’t they are in trouble. Next year will see the introduction of demand driven funding which means

Institutions would receive government funding only if they attracted students.

Update: Another article by Steven Schwartz makes this point more strongly. This quote in particular

While many factors contributed to today’s problems, a key one is that educational providers sought international students as way to bolster their bottom line. They forgot their core mission to educate individuals; instead they saw them as dollar signs.

I’ve seen first hand the compromises that happen when what is needed for good quality teaching and learning bangs up against commercial imperatives. What is known about good teaching and learning is sacrificed at the altar of commercial concerns. Here’s a related example from Tutty et al (2008)

The solution to the high failure rate was to change the assessment to satisfy the institutional requirements of satisfied students and reasonable pass rates rather than explore an alternative learning and teaching approach – an effective solution in the current higher education environment that encourages the academic to prioritise other areas, such as research…………current institutional policies, including teaching and learning quality measures and lack of resources, are compromising the way subjects are delivered. In some cases academics are discouraged from improving their teaching practice

Research is paramount for many academics

This almost goes without saying. An excerpt from my thesis, or at least from one of the drafts

Academic interest and focus on teaching is further impacted by exposure to ambiguous, even contradictory, role expectations. Academics are expected to engage equally in research and teaching and yet work towards promotion criteria that primarily value achievements in research (Zellweger 2005). There is no question that funded research and publication of results in scholarly journals is the dominant criteria in universities world-wide and this is, at least a contributing, if not causal factor in this limitations of university learning and teaching (Knapper 2003). While a review of promotion criteria and weightings from UK universities found widespread adoption of formal parity between teaching and research for mid-range academics, it found that promotion to senior ranks were based almost exclusively on research excellence and did not allow applications based on teaching activities (Parker 2008). Fairweather (2005) found that spending more time teaching in the classroom remains a negative influence on academic pay and that the trend is worsening most rapidly in institutions whose central missions focuses on teaching.

I’ve had numerous interactions with senior academics at really good universities. Their consistent message is that you do a good enough job at teaching and get on with the research.

Getting the next contract is paramount for many other academics

According to one report

At 67,000, casual academics vastly outnumber other academic staff at Australia’s universities, accounting for 60 per cent of the total.

Casual academics aren’t in a position to be undertaking the sort of reflective and time-consuming process required to improve teaching and learning. They are focused on doing a complex job for which they are being underpaid. At the same time they are probably trying to make sure that they get another contract. And you don’t get another contract by pointing out the flaws in the quality of teaching and learning at the institution employing you. You certainly don’t do it by pointing out these flaws to the professor who is most likely your supervisor and is mostly focused on research (see previous section).

Getting the next contract is paramount for senior managers

Almost without exception all senior leaders in Australian universities are on 5 year contracts. Their focus is generally on being seen to achieve short-term wins with high levels of visibility that encourage and enable them to get the next 5 year contract. Hopefully one that entails a promotion either internally or to a better university. I am sure that many of these folk try their hardest to make a difference, however, the reality is there will always be some level of focusing on demonstrable wins. A symptom of this is the comment I heard often, “We have to focus our limited time/resources on the problems we can do something about.”

Such a system is not conducive to engaging in the hard yards to address systematic issues limiting the quality of teaching and learning. Generally it entails organisational restructures (how many times has the L&T support unit at your university been restructured in the last 10 years?), restructuring of degrees/programs or the development of new sexy programs (e.g. at the moment it would probably be “allied health” programs).

Limits of an external body

Since the primary aims of most institutions isn’t exactly aligned with good teaching and learning the efforts of an external body like ALTC are always going to be limited. They will be limited to people who are inherently interested in learning and teaching. This usually means managers or staff who are employed in roles associated specifically with teaching and learning. It also includes the small percentage of academics interested in L&T.

As argued by Moore (2002) and Geoghegan (1994) these people are not the same as – what I think is the majority of folk at a university – those who aren’t directly interested. This difference creates a chasm which inherently limits the ability to spread the ideas generated by the interested folk to the uninterested folk. Even if adoption is apparently achieved I would propose that in many situations the best that can be hoped for is task corruption.

This reminds me of a recent comment of a colleague

when I studied the Instructional Design course at U Manitoba, my professor said that there is no point pushing a constructivist learning design onto a subject matter expert who has been teaching for 30 years with a behaviourist approach.

The significant difference between those interested in ALTC-like activities and those not, is such that it often becomes like an attempt to push a constructivist learning design on a behaviourist. i.e. destined to less than entirely successful.

For these and other reasons I don’t think an external body like ALTC can ever make a significant difference, unless the the context of Australian higher education is changed, good teaching and learning will remain less than a priority. Oh sure, the espoused position of institutions, their strategic plans and the public statements of senior managers will talk the good talk. But if you look really closely, they won’t be walking the walk.

This is the experience described in the Tutty et al (2008) quote above and an experience I’ve seen first (and second) hand again and again. When faced with a problem that arises because of a problem in teaching and learning (e.g. low failure rates due to significant change in student cohort) it is not the “good” teaching and learning solution that is adopted (e.g. radically change the pedagogy to one better suited to the changed cohort), but rather the simpler, more pragmatic solution (e.g. re-write the exam, or perhaps re-mark the exam).

ALTC did some good work. But there were also some real problems, but that will happen in anything this size dealing with something as complex as university teaching and learning. My problem is that I don’t think it would ever have been an effective champion of teaching and learning within higher education. At least not in terms of changing the priorities associated with teaching and learning for a majority of institutions or their staff.

It could be argued that something like ATLC may be better than nothing, but then perhaps rather than expend effort trying to save something like ALTC, it might be better to expend that effort changing the fundamental problems.


Fairweather, J. (2005). Beyond the rhetoric: Trends in the relative value of teaching and research in faculty salaries. Journal of Higher Education, 76(4), 401-422.

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD.

Knapper, C. (2003). Three decades of educational development. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1-2), 5-9.

Moore, G. A. (2002). Crossing the Chasm (Revised ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

Parker, J. (2008). Comparing research and teaching in university promotion criteria. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(3), 237-251.

Tutty, J., Sheard, J., & Avram, C. (2008). Teaching in the current higher education environment: perceptions of IT academics. Computer Science Education, 18(3), 171-185.

Zellweger, F. (2005). Strategic Management of Educational Technology: The Importance of Leadership and Management. Paper presented at the 27th Annual EAIR Forum.

Analytics, semantic web and cognitive science

I’m currently reading a draft of my wife’s PhD thesis. The thesis uses metaphor to examine the concepts that underpin research within the Information Systems discipline. It finds that research within the discipline appears to have a very heavy emphasis on techno-rational type conceptions of organisations, individuals and artifacts. There are various connections between this work and that of learning analytics and some of the assumptions behind the semantic web. This is an initial attempt to make some of these connections. Given limited time (I have to get back to commenting on the thesis), this has become more a place-holder of thoughts and ideas I need to explore more fully.

This post was prompted by this quote by Merlin Donald that is included in the thesis (emphasis added)

It is far more useful to view computational science as part of the problem, rather than the solution. The problem is understanding how humans can have invented explicit, algorithmically driven machines when our brains do not operate this way. The solution, if it ever comes, will be found by looking inside ourselves.

This captures some of my concerns when I start hearing computer scientists talk about intelligent tutors, the semantic web and other “big” applications of artificial intelligence. I don’t doubt the usefulness of these techniques in their appropriate place, however, I think it increasingly unlikely that they can effectively replace/mirror/simulate a human being outside of those limited places.

Another interesting quote from Merlin Donald’s home page

His central thesis is that human beings have evolved a completely novel cognitive strategy: brain-culture symbiosis. As a consequence, the human brain cannot realize its design potential unless it is immersed in a distributed communication network, that is, a culture, during its development. The human brain is, quite literally, specifically adapted for functioning in a complex symbolic culture.

Sounds like there are some interesting potential connections with connectivism and distributed cognition. A connection which – after a very quick skim – this paper (Donald, 2007) seems to make.

The first Donald quote mentioned above comes from the book The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities (Fauconnier & Turner, 2003). A book that argues that conceptual blending is at the core of human thinking, or at least what makes us distinctive.

Lot’s more to read and ponder. For now, some questions

  • Is there a fit here with connectivism and/or distributed cognition (or similar)?
  • What implications do these ideas have for analytics and how it can make a difference?
  • What critiques are there of these ideas?


Donald, M. The slow process: A hypothetical cognitive adaptation for distributed cognitive networks. Journal of Physiology (Paris), 2007, 101:214-222.

Fauconnier, G. & Turner M. (2003). The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books

The power of organisational structure

I find myself in an interesting transitionary period in learning. I’m in the final stages of my part-time PhD study, just waiting for the copy editor to check the last two chapters and then its submission time. I’m participating – participation that has been negatively impacted recently by the desire to get the thesis finalised – in a MOOC, LAK11 and looking at returning to full-time study as a high school teacher in training. It is from within this context that the following arises.

Yesterday I read a reflection on week 2 of LAK11 Hans de Zwart in which he quotes from a MIT Sloan Management review article on Big Data and analytics. The quote

The adoption barriers that organizations face most are managerial and cultural rather than related to data and technology. The leading obstacle to wide-spread analytics adoption is lack of understanding of how to use analytics to improve the business, according to almost four of 10 respondents.

This doesn’t come as a great surprise. After all, I think the biggest problems for universities when approaching many new technologies is grappling with the fact that most new technologies have biases that challenge the managerial and cultural assumptions upon which the institution operates. Being aware of and responding effectively to those challenges is what most institutions and those in power do really badly.

One contributing factor to this is that organisations and those in power work on assumptions that seek to maintain and reinforce their importance. Let’s use my experience as a starting university student as an example. As a new student at the university I am receiving all sorts of messages designed to help me make the transition back to study. Do you want to know what strikes me most about these messages and the transition assistance being provided?

That the organisation and communication of these help/transition resources correspond more to the structure of the organisation than to what might actually be useful to a new student. Some examples.

The “we’re here to help” message is a list of the different organisational units, which perhaps is not that surprising. But how about the “guide for students”.

Structure of a university guide for students

How would you expect a University guide for new students to be structured?

  1. By program?
    i.e. I’m enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching, a guide for those students?
  2. By discipline?
    i.e The GDL&T is within the education discipline, a guide for those students?
  3. By organisational unit?
    This university divides academic staff into schools and then schools into faculties (e.g. the Faculty of Arts, Business, Informatics and Education)
  4. One for the whole university?

Which would make the most sense? The more specific the guide, probably the more useful. But that might require more work (each program having its own guide) and lead to some fragmentation within the institution.

One of the whole university would reduce the workload and increase the commonality between students, however, it would fail to capture the diversity inherent in disciplines. I’m pretty sure that as a graduate education student, I’ll probably need to know things that are a bit different than an undergraduate engineer.

At this institution it is by organisational unit, by faculty. The institution only has two faculties. So there are two guides.

Content of the university guide

So, if the student guide is divided by faculty, then it must contain faculty specific information. Otherwise, why would there be a division.

The first really specific information mentioned was on page 12 of 19 when it mentioned residential schools for GDL&T students. However, some in the sciences and engineering do residential schools as well. On page 18 of 19 there is mention that Law students need to use a special referencing style. Apart from that there is no information that wasn’t generic to all students. Much check what’s in the other student guide.

Oh, this one starts differently. It has a letter from the Dean of the Faculty. Of course, it was only a couple of months into 2010 (by the way, both guides are still the 2010 guides, 2011 guides haven’t been uploaded yet even though a global “have you read the guides” message has been sent to all students) and the (acting) Dean had moved onto another role.

Another difference, this one mentions clothing and safety within laboratories and on field work. A lot more mention of RPL in this guide. Ahh specific information for engineering students. Must be a great help to all those non-engineering students in the faculty. And this one has screen shots of how students are to get assignment cover sheets, rather than the paragraph of text in the other guide.

So it does contain some different stuff, but still mostly institution level information and information that is already available in other forms elsewhere.

Why have these two guides?

In short, my answer would be, that the management of the two faculties have to do something. There doesn’t appear to be any other explanation why the student guides would be provided at this level. Not to mention that given they simply repeat information that is given elsewhere (and have yet to be updated for 2011) there’s probably no need for them. But it is something that has been done in the past, so it must be done now.

Organisational and cultural influences and problems for learning analytics

For me, this is an example of how organisational and cultural influences impact upon the effective delivery of learning and teaching within universities. Much of what is done, and why it is done, says more about the existing cultures, structures and agendas within the management of the institution than it does about what is best for learning and teaching.

And it won’t be any different for learning analytics. In many universities, the questions that will be asked of analytics will be those deemed important by management. It will be difficult for the questions asked to be designed to cater for the diversity of needs at the levels of discipline, program, teacher or student.

Which is why I’m worried when the Sloan article recommends this solution

Instead, organizations should start in what might seem like the middle of the process, implementing analytics by first defining the insights and questions needed to meet the big business objective and then identifying those pieces of data needed for answers.

The insights and questions that are defined are more likely to say something about the organisational and cultural influences of the host institution, than about what is best for learning and teaching.

The difference between utopian and dystopian visions

As part of the LAK11 course Howard Johnson has commented on an earlier post of mine. This post is a place holder for a really nice quote from Howard’s post, an example from recent media reports, and perhaps a bit of a reflection on responses to analytics.

The quote, some reasons and an example

I like this quote because it summarises what I see as the most common problem with the institutions I’ve been associated with. Especially in recent years as there’s been a much stronger move toward the adoption of more techno-rational approaches to management.

A utopian leaning vision can only be achieved with hard work and much effort, but a dystopian vision can be achieved with only minimal effort.

Improving learning and teaching within a modern university context is a complex task. There is no one right solution, there is no simple solution, no silver bullet. Improving learning and teaching is really hard work.

The trouble is that short-term contracts for senior management (which at some institutions now reach down to what were essentially head of school roles) and other characteristics of the organisational context mean that it is simply not possible for that really hard work to be undertaken. The organisational characteristics of Australian universities is increasingly biased towards a focus on the easy route. Something that can be implemented quickly, appear to return good results and enable a senior manager to boast about it when attempting to renew his/her contract and/or apply for a better job at a better institution.

Based on this argument, when I read this article (via @clairebroooks) and especially this quote from the article

Poor and disadvantaged students were clear winners, with university offers to students from low socio-economic backgrounds increasing by 8 per cent, following the higher participation targets set by the federal government after the 2008 Bradley review of higher education.

I find it very hard to believe that all of these institutions have adopted a utopian vision that has seen their learning and teaching practices, policies, resourcing and systems appropriately updated to respond to the very different needs and backgrounds of these students. Including the necessary re-visiting of the curriculum and learning designs used in their large introductory courses. The courses these students are going to be facing first and which traditionally, at most institutions in most disciplines, have significant failure rates already.

Instead, I see it much more likely that they’ve simply changed who they’ve accepted. At best, they may have thrown some additional resources (an extra warm body or two) to some central support division that is responsible for helping these students. These folk may even have had a couple of meetings with staff who teach those first year courses.

This is not to suggest there aren’t some brilliant folk doing fantastics work in both the central divisions responsible for the bridging and orientation of these students, or in the teaching of large first year courses. It is to suggest that this work is often/usually in spite of the organisational vision, not because of it. It is also to suggest that the existence of such work is almost certainly not repeatable or sustainable. My guess is you could go to any institution boasting how well it is serving these students and by selectively removing a handful of people cause the edifice of good practice to fall apart. The institutional systems wouldn’t be able to continue the good practice in the absence of those key folk.

The utopian vision professed by these institutions will be the result of the hard work of a few who have generally had to battle against the institutional vision and context.

One utopian vision for learning analytics

As Howard suggests much of the discussion of analytics has focused on the dystopian vision. It’s a vision I see as most the likely outcome. At least in the current institutional context.

But at the same time, I do believe that some applications of analytics can help improve the learning and teaching experience of students and staff. It’s important to be aware of and keep highlighting the dystopian vision, but it’s also important – and perhaps past time – to develop and move towards a utopian vision. Or at least to learn from trying. The following is an attempt at the early formulation of one of these. This particular vision connects with some of what I’ve been trying to do. The following does assume an institutional context for learning – that’s what I’m familiar with – am not sure how much of it would be useful for outside an institutional learning context.

Having just listened to John Fitz’s presentation via the lak11 podcast I’d like to pick up notion he mentioned of the self-regulated learner and the idea that analytics can provide useful assistance to that learner. A brief and incomplete summary of an aspect of John’s point would be that there is value in providing the learner with the information provided by analytics in order to enable the learner to make their own decisions.

I would like, however, to expand that to idea to the notion of the self-regulated teacher and the potential benefits that analytics can provide them. From my perspective there are at least three broad types of learner involved in any institutional learning context. They are:

  1. The formal student learner enrolled in a course/program.
    These folk are primarily interested in learning the “content” associated with the course.
  2. The formal teacher learner charged with running the course/program.
    These folk are/should be primarily interested in learning how they can improve the learning experience of the student.
  3. The institutional learner within which the course/program is offered.
    These “folk” are/should be primarily interested in learning how to improve the learning experience of the students and teachers within the institution. Similar to Biggs’ (2001) quality feasibility ideas. Though they are more often primarily interested in defining the learning experience, rather than engaging with and improving existing practices.

At this stage, I’m interested in how analytics can be used to help learner types 1 and 2. I’m keen on changing the learning/teaching environment for these learners in ways that help them improve their own practice (what I see as the task for learner type 3 and the task they aren’t doing). For right or wrong, for most of the higher education institutions I’m associated with the learning environment means the LMS. At least in terms of the contributions I might be able to make.

My small-scale utopian vision is the modification of the LMS environment to effectively bake in analytics informed services and modifications that can help student and teacher learners become more aware of possibly relevant improvements to their practice. Some examples include:

However, I don’t think these examples go far enough. There’s something missing. Additional thought needs to be given to the insights from the behaviour change literature which suggests that simply knowing about something isn’t sufficient to encourage change in behaviour.

This comes to the idea of scaffolding conglomerations. One idea for such a conglomeration might be to:

  • Embed SNAPP into an LMS (e.g. Moodle).
    At the moment, SNAPP is a browser based tool so it can only generate visualisations based on data in courses that the user has access to. For most people in most LMS this means you are limited by the inherent course division fundamental to LMS design. You can’t see and act upon the social networks evident in other courses.
  • Build around SNAPP some responses based on common patterns.
    One example might be a “Prompt all isolated students” feature that would present the academic with a template email (designed based on insights from theory or experience) that can be sent automatically to all discussion forum participants that aren’t connected to others. It might automatically include some statistics showing success rates between students that are isolated and those that are connected.
  • Enable user-contribution of common responses.
    Enable staff to add their own pattern response sequences.
  • Link SNAPP data with other Moodle and institutional data.
    Allow staff and students to see additional anonymised information with the SNAPP visualisations. e.g. shade red all those students who exhibit network connections similar to those who have failed the course previously.
  • Provide links to resources about good practice.
    When SNAPP detects a pattern where one person (e.g. the teacher) is the focal point of all interaction within a discusion forum, it provides a link to the literature and instructional design practice that suggests this is wrong and identifies approaches to modify practice.
  • Makes SNAPP data visible to other teachers within a cohort.
    All teachers within the psychology courses can see the network visualisations in each others courses. Thereby making visible and open for discussion social norms within those courses.

Time to stop worrying about dystopian vision (and also writing about a potential utopian vision) and start doing something. As per the Alan Kay quote

Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Analytics creating too much transparency? A two-edged sword?

Have been listening to a Dave Snowden podcast of a “101 organic KM course”. Amongst many familiar themes is the mention of the pitfalls of too much transparency hurting innovation.

He uses the example of expense accounts to illustrate the point. At one stage he had a large expense account which could be used to fund interesting and unusual approaches around his work. The innovation was possible was there was no itemisation/justification of the expense. Upon moving into a large company there came a requirement for itemisation. That itemisation kills off innovation.

This rings a bell at the moment, because of the current discussion about the problems with learning analytics and in particular George Siemens’ list of concerns.

In the dim dark past of the 90s, when I was an innovative, young university academic no-one took any notice of what I did within the courses I was teaching. I could do a lot of very different things that are documented in my publications from that time. Not all of them worked as I planned, but they all helped something interesting grow.

In part this was possible because of the very problem that often worried me about some of my colleagues. At that time, there were at least 2 or 3 of my fellow academics who were fairly widely known as being really bad educators. Even though one or two claimed to be great teachers, even a cursory glance at their practice and resources or a chat with a range of their students would confirm some really, really bad practice. What annoyed me at the time was that the system allowed their practice to be opaque. As long as they met various deadlines (even though they were often late) and had a reasonable grade distribution there practice was allowed to continue.

What I am only now starting to realise is that if that system wasn’t opaque, if it were too transparent, I probably wouldn’t have undertaken any of the innovative work I did. One explanation why not arises from Siemens’ list of concerns. In a university with analytics baked in and heavily relied upon by management to “manage”

  • The act of providing a quality learning experience has been reduced to a set of numbers and graphs that specify certain activities and tasks. In response to known patterns from analytics I am expected to perform certain tasks, perhaps even push certain buttons at certain times to encourage those patterns to happen again.
  • What is accepted is what is measured and has become the target. Anyone moving away from the established pattern is fighting the inertia of the organisation and its systems. (This was actually one of the problems I faced working within an institution with a history of industrial print-based education in the mid-1990s while attempting to use the Internet).
  • Different interpretations of what is good learning/teaching due to the diversity inherent in the disciplines, concepts, individual students and teachers is lost. You (and the students) are expected to follow the standard patterns that analytics has established as effective. (This is also my problem with the LMS. For some institutions it has become the case that you can do any online learning you want. As long as the functionality is provided within the LMS restrictions of quiz, discussion forum, assignment management etc.)
  • The smart/pragmatic academics and students will have identified what “analytics patterns” are required and figured out the least painful way to provide those requirements.
  • When something like the recent Queensland floods occur it will throw the analytics system into melt-down as the expect patterns won’t be there. For example, the two “late” letters I received in the post today (first post since before Christmas due to the floods) from Video Ezy asking for their DVD back. Regardless of floods cutting off all possibility of me returning it.
  • The “analytics patterns” will drive management to change policy and funding for practices so that only those patterns can be re-created. Anything that falls outside that norm will not be funded. (e.g. this is one of the major, unsolved problems the industrial, print-based distance education university had with online, it kept funding for f-t-f and DE, never figuring out that online could be different).
  • Since the “analytics patterns” have been established and the funding routinised management are able to treat the folk responsible for designing and delivering teaching like building blocks that can be replaced as needed.

And there’s more.

Learning analytics looks like being a two-edged sword.

Creating a podcast for LAK11 presentations

I’m currently participating in the Learning and Knowledge Analytics MOOC being run by George Siemens and others. This post outlines the process I used to create a podcast of the presentations (click on that link if you want to subscribe to the podcast) being given as part of the course.


The presentations are taking place within Elluminate and Elluminate recordings are made available. So why a podcast? Simply put the asynchronous and audio only nature better matches my preferences and context. So, I’ve repeated a process I use for the PLE/PLN symposium. More details below.


The basic process is

  • Bookmark the mp3 files using using the tag lak11podcast.
  • Pass the RSS for that those tags produced by through feedburner to generate a podcast.
  • Subscribe to the podcast using iTunes or other software.

The one difference between this podcast for LAK11 and the PLE/PLN podcast, is that I couldn’t bookmark the original mp3 files. These files are made available via the LAK11 Moodle course. Attempting to access the files directly results in a redirect to the home page for the SCOPE Moodle instance where you can login as a guest and view the files.

Works fine if you are a person on the web, but podcast software like iTunes isn’t that smart.

The solution I adopted here was to copy the MP3 files out of the Moodle course into a location without a re-direct. In this case drop box. I was a bit reluctant to do this as these aren’t my files, however, I’m assuming that given the nature of the MOOC that this should be okay. If not, the files will be removed.


At the moment, production of the podcast relies on new mp3 files being tagged by me with the tag lak11podcast. Would probably be more responsive if feedburner was set up to use anything anyone tagged with lak11podcast. For now, I’m leaving the restriction simply to save time and let me get on with some more reading. Happy to change it if people ask.