Confronting Reality with Big Data & Learning Analytics

Yesterday I was at ALT-C in Manchester, as one of a group from The Open University and JISC, running the symposium, Big Data & Learning Analytics: Confronting Reality with Big Data & Learning Analytics. Sheila MacNeill has blogged about the event and responses to it.


We are experiencing an explosion in the quantity of data available online from archives and live streams. Learning Analytics is concerned with how educational research, and learning platform design, can make more effective use of such data (Long & Siemens, 2011). Improving outcomes through the analysis of data is of interest to researchers, administrators, systems architects, social media developers, educators and learners. Analytics are being held up by some as a way to confront, and tackle, the tough new realities of less money, less attention, and higher accountability for quality of learning.

Researchers and vendors are building reporting capabilities into tools that provide unprecedented levels of data on learners. This symposium will show what is possible, and what’s coming soon. What objections could possibly be raised to such progress?

However, information infrastructure embodies and shapes worldviews: classification schemes are not only systematic ways to capture and preserve, but also to forget, by virtue of what remains invisible (Bowker & Star, 1999). Learning analytics and recommendation engines are designed with a particular conception of ‘success’, driving the patterns deemed to be evidence of progress, the interventions that are deemed appropriate, the data captured and the rules that fire in software.

This symposium will air some of the critical arguments around the limits of decontextualised data and automated analytics, which often appear reductionist in nature, failing to illuminate higher order learning. There are complex ethical issues around data fusion, and it is not clear to what extent learners are empowered, in contrast to being merely the objects of tracking technology. Educators may also find themselves at the receiving end of a new battery of institutional ‘performance indicators’ that do not reflect what they consider to be authentic learning and teaching.

This Symposium will provide the opportunity to hear a series of brief presentations introducing contrasting perspectives, before the debate is opened to all. Speakers from a cross-section of The Open University will describe how we are connecting datasets, analysing student data and prototyping next generation analytics. Complementing this, JISC will present a national capability perspective, with an update on the JISC CETIS ‘landscape analysis’ of the field, which will clarify potential benefits, issues to consider, and help institutions to assess their current capability and possible next steps.

Participants will catch up with developments in this fast moving field, through exposure to the possibilities of analytics, as well as issues to be alert to.

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