The role of learning analytics in the future of education

Ellen Wagner and Phil Ice’s article, “Data Changes Everything: Delivering on the Promise of Learning Analytics in Higher Education,” does a nice job of discussing the positives and negatives of educational data analytics.  That field will be one of the most dynamic areas in education over the next several years.  We are really in the infancy of what is possible with learning analytics and the growing abundance of data to be analyzed.  I was a big fan of the Moneyball approach in baseball. The Oakland A’s used data analysis to identify high achievers who were undervalued.  It has allowed them to have great success with lower budgets than the vast majority of clubs.  The A’s have, more often than not, been in first or second place since 1999, while most of the time their budget has been well into the lower third of team spending.  I can appreciate the model of approaching the formula for winning from a different angle – that is, doing things differently than conventional wisdom dictates.

How well that type of Moneyball success can translate to education isn’t as clear. No one is exactly sure how to best use the variety and volume of data yet, though the goals are there.  The better, cheaper, faster approach is always attractive.  For example, colleges could use learning management system data to help students succeed through early detection of struggling students – perhaps before the students themselves are even aware of their plight.  That student centered goal supports an institutional goal of increasing retention and can, perhaps, even be accomplished more cheaply than we currently do so with the increasing availability of learning data.  However, the data collection and analysis could lead to unintended consequence of being a slave to results or, alternatively, suffering from analysis paralysis in not being willing to act without one more study.  While there are lots of directions that the future could hold, I think it clear that there will be good opportunities for DE professionals with data analysis skills who can practically understand what the data is or is not telling us and who can communicate the results simply.


The Evolving Learning Management System

Learning Management Systems (LMS), if not properly managed, can actually actively work against the goal of learning.  Mark Berthelemy’s blog entry on the use of the LMS in corporate settings indicates what some of the problems are in it’s use today and are equally applicable to the college setting (see The Changing Role of the LMS).  One of his points, regarding the difficulty of LMS usage, is apparent to anyone who has ever lived through the upgrade from older to newer versions of software, like MIcrosoft Word or Excel.  Ultimately you don’t want the learning goals of the subject matter to be taught to be obscured by the complexity of the system that houses the subject matter.  As Berthelelemy points out, we also need to find better, more creative, ways to measure learning – especially when it is done at a distance as LMS learning is most often done.  We shouldn’t be constrained by the LMS analytics available to us if they are inadequate.  Instead, as he says, “we need to learn how to make the important measurable, rather than the measurable important (Bethelemy, 2012).”  It is too easy for organizations to do the latter.

Disruptive Technology & Innovation – The role of e-learning in the higher education industry

Improving Higher Education through Disruption by Clayton Christensen

Christensen’s article provides a good example of how disruptive technology is applicable to higher education.  Disruptive technology describes a technology that replaces an established technology by opening new markets.  Also described as disruptive innovation, there are lots of great examples available in the Wikipedia article, here.  The Christensen article has lots of implications for distance education technologies and higher education today.  We are at a point where the technologies of distance education are being used to breach new markets and are transforming life in higher educational institutions, but it still isn’t clear how higher education will evolve in response.

Online Learning…here to stay?

Small, private colleges fret over online classes By Denise-Marie Ordway, Orlando Sentinel

Small, private, liberal arts colleges are slow to jump on the bandwagon of online education.  The official line is often that what they do can’t be replicated in an online environment.  While there is some truth to this, it is also true that more can be done to simulate the student interaction that promotes critical thinking, at a distance.  It does require some vision, creativity and administrative courage, however.   Standing still may lead to declining enrollments as students have come to expect more convenience in the educational marketplace.  As educational consultant, Robert Lytle puts it, “…online education is here to stay … to pretend that it is a fad is to imperil an institution.”  I expect we’ll see more of the types of baby-steps described in Ordway’s article – that is, the move towards blended learning.  Colleges moving in such a direction may even end up being closer to what the future of higher education will look like than they know.

Online learning’s influence on traditional pedagogy

A New Pedagogy is Emerging…And Online Learning is a Key Contributing Factor

This is a good summary article of the effect that distance education and online learning methods have had on the traditional classroom in higher education.  It is also a strong likely scenario of what the future of a good portion of higher education institutions will look like in the near future.  

The article points out that three things are driving the change:

1) The increasing demands of the knowledge based society and emphasis on lifelong learning and expectation that workers will be able to manage the process themselves.

2) Student expectations are changing with regard to the role of technology that they expect to take place in the learning process and workplace. 

3) New technology has made information more freely available, collaboration among students easier and learning at the time, place and pace of the individual student possible.  

I’d add a fourth thing that is driving the change.  The cost of delivery of the new type of educational system holds some promise in controlling educational costs that have been growing faster than inflation for decades now.

The article details how the conditions above are shaping a new pedagogy where education is no longer subject, solely, to a geographical place, where the learning process is more of a partnership between student and teacher (more heterarchical and less hierarchical), and where technology plays a greater role in the process.  Ultimately this may prepare students more fully for an economy where such characteristics are often commonplace.

Final Blog Post?

This is my final blog post under the deadline for the OMDE 603 course, but I don’t think it will be my final blog post.  For me, the greatest utility of this process is that I can give thought to what I am learning in real time and there are no limits to how much I can write, as there is with Twitter.  I really like that I can link articles that are interesting and organize my thoughts about what is useful or important, or just wrong, about the article right below.  Later, if I want to see how my thinking evolved on a topic, I can easily do so, even searching my own blog for keywords.

In the future, I can see creating a separate blog on general topics of interest to me, even if it isn’t public.  However, there is a benefit to it being public.  Others can add to your knowledge through their comments or suggested links – it becomes similar to a social constructivist learning approach.  On the other hand, perhaps I wouldn’t be as forthcoming in my ideas on a topic if it were public, or maybe I’ll write something that is misunderstood or taken out of context that creates an online firestorm.  So there are benefits and concerns for both methods.  Another general concern with the blog and linking to articles is the constant evolution of the web that may make the links invalid over time.  It would be nice to have the articles archived for the time the blog is active – more like an online notebook, like Evernote.

Overall, the blogging experiment has been a good learning process that I can see greater benefits than any potential downside.  Here’s hoping that this is a habit that I can keep up with in the future!

Virtual Worlds for Learning

Virtual-Learning Landscape by Brian Shuster in Today’s Campus

This is a great article about the use of virtual worlds that students can explore, alone or together, as part of the learning process.  The idea is that historical times and places can be recreated on the computer.  Students, through their avatars (computer character representing the student), can roam the computerized landscape as they choose.  The virtual world can give students a real flavor for what it was like to be in that time and place – a virtual trip through history.  It makes it easier to imagine what it might have been like for the people of the time or how that landscape might have influenced a specific historical character.  Perhaps they can relive a famous event, like the eruption of Vesuvius, a battle in WWI or see the Gettysburg Address from the cheap seats.  Virtual worlds are another tool in the educational toolbox to make learning fun or to reach students that they might not otherwise reach.  I always thought the use of Second Life was interesting for holding class meetings, but I thought it limited.  How interesting will things be when it is common for an instructor to say, “I’ll see you next week at the Cotton Club in 1920’s Harlem for our next lesson.”

Distance Education Retention

Exploring Retention Strategies for Distance Learners, by Steven Starks

In our discussion of the differences between distance education (DE) and face-to-face (F2F) instruction and a comparison of the role of the instructor in DE vs. F2F, questions of retention came up.  These questions, along with questions at our college about retention as we move towards a blended learning environment, set me to look for work that discussed how retention compares in DE vs. F2F.  I found it interesting that it was pretty hard to find any work that covered the gamut of instructional options in DE.  There were articles about the poor retention in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and less poor retention of other fully online, instructor led, courses.  Unfortunately, there was little regarding the hybrid or blended learning environment.  What I did find, however, was a good list of low-cost strategies to improve retention in a DE environment (see the bottom of the article in the above link).

Starks is an academic counselor and, not surprisingly, he focused on the issue from the perspective of an academic counseling department.  It’s a great list and one worthy of institutions offering any type of DE to consider.  In addition, I would add to the list, an early warning referral system where instructors get into the act.  This is probably easier implemented in a blended learning environment, but could be used by fully online courses as well.  When students attendance or log-ons start to slow, when grades are poor, or student responses indicate that the student just doesn’t seem to be getting the material, these are good times for individualized contact by the instructor or counseling department.  Is there something that can be done to help the student?  Are there external, personal, factors leading to the poor performance?  Are there technical issues?   Is there an academically related problem?  These seem to be questions that could be assessed early and in an ongoing way to improve retention.

Research and Fraud

How Science Goes Wrong in The Economist

Much of what we do in our class, and what educational researchers do everyday, is based on research that has been done before.  Having worked in the physical sciences, social sciences and now education, I’ve often wondered about the quality of research.  As I transitioned from the physical sciences to the social sciences, I began to see how easy it might be to “fake” results – something that I didn’t consider when in the physical sciences.

I’ve wondered similarly about fraud and educational research in the past several months.  Now stories are popping up in the media about a large percentage of results in Chinese science journals being fraudulent and the attached article as well.  I think it may be a warning shot across the bow of educational research.  Perhaps in the publish or perish environment of academia, there should be more respect given to replicating results.  I can understand that you don’t want researchers who are only capable of mimicking results, but a mix of replication and unique research would seem to be good for the scientific pursuit.  I wonder how many blind alley’s could be averted and resources saved through such a shift in thinking.

OER and Quality

On Quality and OER by David Wiley

There was much discussion in our class lately regarding Open Educational Resources (OER) and their quality or lack thereof.  Tony Bates argued that “the materials available to date are terrible…” in response to OER available at GlobalUni’s site (a free university), though he was arguing about that as but one example of the poor quality of general OER (Bates, 2011, The Bad, para. 4).  David Wiley, in the attached link above, argues for the opposing view – that just because it is OER doesn’t mean that it is poor quality.  In fact, he offers evidence that quality (in terms of accuracy) is little different between an OER like Wikipedia and an encyclopedia produced through traditional means, like the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Further, he questions how quality really should be defined, settling on a definition that refers to whether students learn using the resource and not whether the resource has a lot of glossy photos.

In the quality argument, I think that Wiley is closer to the mark, but that there is room to include a bit of both views in the definition.  It isn’t that I think that glossy pictures are more important than whether the resources are effective learning tools.  Rather, I wonder if more people will persist in the learning process if they are attracted to the resources.  While I suspect that Bates was being deliberately provocative, it is an unfair indictment – as Wiley’s evidence shows,  Ultimately I think it is just important to encourage the OER movement to improve educational access for all.  Market mechanisms, for those who have determined how to make money using OER, and people voting with their clicks, may determine the highest quality materials and provide the drive to improve that quality.


Bates, T., (2011, February 6). OERs: the good, the bad and the ugly. Available from: