Times of day, submission dates, learning statistics, interaction charts – is this what is meant by “learning analytics”?

Article first published on SeOppi 2/2018.

Text: Kaisa Honkonen & Leena Vainio, Association of Finnish eLearning Centre

Leena Vainio studied for the Adaptable Learning Paths project what learning analytics tools are available in current electronic learning environments and how they are used. She received responses for her survey from the representatives of sixteen system suppliers, three learning material producers and six educational institutions.

For quite some time, learning environments have shown us statistics on the use of the system and materials. Such information has been essential for pure online courses, and particularly so for their development, whereas the same information has often been only nice-to-know for classroom teaching.

However, learning analytics comprise much more than learning statistics. We use learning analytics to combine bits of information in order to bring up the critical issues that affect the learner’s progress – the learner may remain completely unchallenged or he or she may be struggling with assignments which are much too difficult, or the situation may be somewhere between these extremities.

At its best, learning analytics support the learner in a timely fashion and guide the learning process towards its goals. Learning analytics alone cannot support learning, and the support of teachers, other learners, parents and workplace instructors is much in need. Analytics provide information that helps the parties think together and find the relevant strengths and points to develop. Properly used, analytics help teachers by giving them new methods to guide learning processes and to support individual, unique learning paths.

The true value of learning analytics is seen when we can use them to help students understand their own ways of learning. How do their own efforts show in the progress of their studies? How have various interactive situations influenced their learning? Active learners could select their next step independently in accordance with their interests from among materials offered by the teacher or an artificial intelligence. Is a task best done alone, or would learning be easier through peer learning? Will knowledge grow best if the student works alone, or together with someone else?

Most often, electronic learning materials are put together by individual teachers and the same teachers decide which materials they wish their students to turn to next. Adaptive collections require very different levels of learning materials in order to cater to the needs of different types of learners. Individual teachers working alone are far from being able to make their materials collections adaptive, but by combining forces and working together, they could make versatile materials and exercises more quickly and for varying situations.

The survey showed that there is no onestop-shop application available. The systems all have their strengths, and combining them according to the situation might bring the best results. It is good if we try out different ways, talking to one another about what we actually look for. Most importantly, we should consider what we intend to do when our analytics highlight a problem. What is our action plan? What are the resources for us to tackle the problem? When can the teacher, working alone, provide support, when do we need counsellors and other support persons, and when do we need an artificial intelligence? Just as we need different learning materials and exercises for different learners, we need different guidance methods for different situations. We need multidisciplinary support teams to help an individual teacher, formed dynamically according to the circumstances.

The novel feature in current learning analytics is the way they make the possible problem spots visual for learners themselves. Learners obtain a better picture of the total situation. In learning analytics -based pedagogy, it is more important than before to agree on the goals with each individual learner. What will we practice next, and why? How will we apply this learning later? We start to build knowledge together and select the necessary tools together so that we may reach the goals.

The General Data Protection Regulation GDPR poses certain challenges for the use of learning analytics, but with the appropriate authorisations, we may collect and use data. We might even take sleep and activity data from smart watches and compare them to learning outcomes. Our smart watch might suggest that we take a nap today in the early afternoon so that the Swedish class later in the afternoon would go better. Would that be learning analytics or wellbeing analytics?

Our concluding statement after the survey is that the development of learning analytics will require a great deal of national-level discussion. Similarly to the debate on artificial intelligence, learning analytics as well require a unified understanding of the concept of human being which we wish to help formulate. What views do we adopt regarding diverse learners and how do we apply the different guidance resources available to us?

At the same time, we also need a shared understanding of the minimum which learning analytics should show us. What features should be available in all systems? What are the minimum requirements; what requirements do we have for data transfer among different systems; what interfaces and registration systems should we use?

Recognise the need. What are the problems to be solved through learning analytics?

Specify. What kinds of learning analytics do we already have in our school? What do we need?

How does the analytics system impact our work culture and management?

What conceptions of learning and human beings are supported by the analytics system?

Strategy and vision.
What skills do we need? The staff’s competences and their training.

How do we share responsibility and adhere to all legal and ethical requirements?

What do we measure?

How do we collect information?

What technologies do we need?

How do we process data, in which forms, and to whom do we disseminate the information?

How do we carry out development actions?

How do we monitor the outcomes?

How do we maintain and enhance the system? Do we, without fail, hold the learner’s best interests as our highest priority?

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