Can learning analytics make a Golf GTI

Or, an attempt to share some thinking about the idea behind an – almost obligatory – application for external funding.

The car analogy

A few weeks ago one of my neighbours up the road had left the lights of his ageing Mitsubishi Magna on. They were on all night. As an older car – arguably of questionable quality – the Magna allowed him to get out of the car with the lights still on. I believe he got out of the car during daylight and it wasn’t obvious to him that his lights were still on. The car, his tool for driving, didn’t warn him of this problem.

On the other hand, one of the cars my family owns is a Honda Jazz. It’s almost as old as the Magna, but arguably Honda have put in a bit more thought. If you remove the keys from the ignition and the headlights are still on, the car starts an incessant and annoying beeping. The car “has a bit of smarts” built in. It warns the driver that there’s a problem.

The other car we own is a VW Golf GTI (see photo). I love this car for a variety of reasons. One of the very minor reasons is that if you remove the key from the ignition, and the headlights are still one, the car turns the lights off. It also has automatic windscreen wipers that do a pretty good job. If it rains, they start.

The new car

The “LMS” is like a Magna

The Learning Management Systems used by most Universities remind me a great deal of the Magna (perhaps a Model T Ford is a better example). They don’t contain a lot of smarts. If something is going to happen within the LMS, then either the students or academics using the LMS have to do it. The LMS doesn’t provide much assistance for the people using it when they fail to pick up on a problem, much like the Magna didn’t warn my neighbour that his headlights were still on.

Using analytics to produce a Golf GTI

Some colleagues and I are currently throwing around an idea to use analytics to make the LMS (in our case Moodle) – or perhaps the broader institutional learning environment – more like a Golf GTI than a Magna.

Perhaps the original or best known example of this is the Signals work at Purdue University. In part, we’d be looking to replicate something like this, but this is only part of the story. We’d also be aiming to identify how a range of the other patterns that have been identified through analytics can be leveraged to modify the LMS to be a more pro-active member of the distributed cognitive system that is learning and teaching within a university (i.e. make the LMS more like the Globe Theatre). The theory being that if the quality of cognitive processes within the institutional learning systems is better, then the (student learning) outcomes should also be better.

This is one approach to responding to the learning analytics challenge identified by Dawson et al (2008, p. 222)

no longer simply to generate data and make it available, but rather to readily and accurately interpret data and translate such findings to practice

How might it happen?

Much of what happens around analytics is driven from the top-down, and there’s a place for that. An alternative that I’m keen to explore with this project is what happens when the question of analytics, the LMS and distributed cognition is examined from the perspective of the teaching staff and the students. What different questions and tools might be useful? This perspective drives the following initial suggested process:

  1. Continue the identification and examination of various patterns in the usage data.
  2. Identify a small set of courses – initial project participants – and
    1. Identify the issues and aims they have for their courses.
    2. Explore whether there are insights from analytics and potential actions they (and the LMS) can take to address the issues/aims.
    3. Modify the LMS environment as a result and observe what happens.
    4. Return to “a”.
  3. Broaden the release of these changes to other courses and observe what happens.

Well, that’s an initial stab. More work to do. More reading to do.

4 thoughts on “Can learning analytics make a Golf GTI

  1. I think a first order decision is what sort of changes would you make? Would you make different changes for different users (portal / PLE style) or changes that are the same for the whole class (making it clearer for the academic what experience the students are having – LMS style)

    I’m interested to see how it goes – I believe strongly that analytics should be for the student’s interest, not for the KPIs of a manager!

    1. G’day Ian,

      Thanks for the comment. Your question about the type of changes to be made, is one of the questions we’d be seeking to answer. The simplest type of change is like the Purdue signals work. Making visible patterns that are in the data, but which aren’t readily available to the users of the system. A bit like the Jazz beeping. Then there’s the question of how you help students/staff take the next step. The Golf simply turns the lights off, but would be appropriate in a learning context? And then there is the idea of breaking out of this analogy and thinking of other ways the learning environment can be changed to help.

      One potential idea is for the LMS/learning environment to detect certain situations (e.g. low student participation or an over reliance on the instructor rather than fellow studnets in a discussion forum) and provide suggestions to the academic about how to engage more students. Those suggestions would be drawn from literature/learning theory, but might also include pointers to other staff who had adopted these approaches. The discussion forum tool itself might provide some scaffolding to help implement those strategies.

      I agree with your point about the student, rather than the manager. And I’ve seen others make this comment. But @beerc and I have long wondered about the academic/teacher. They often seem to be left out of considerations. I’m interested in what happens when a project like this actively helps academics with problems they are experiencing.


    2. … and then there’s the more radical step (not recommended initially, I guess!) of allowing students to see the analytics and choosing such changes themselves rather than putting all the power in the hands of the teacher…

  2. Pingback: Harnessing learning analytics to inform/improve learning and teaching « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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