What I’m reading

Initial thoughts on the JISC report on learning analytics

Sclater, N., Peasgood, A., & Mullan, J. (2016). Learning analytics in higher education. Retrieved 17 March 2017, from http://ift.tt/1SDGa6m.


Summary statement:


The executive summary identifies four areas in which learning analytics might be used.


1      “As a tool for quality assurance and quality improvement” – LA as diagnostic tool both at individual and systemic level; demonstrating compliance with new quality assurance arrangements.

2      “As a tool for boosting retention rates” – with institutions using analytics to identify at risk students, and intervening.

3      “As a tool for assessing and acting upon differential outcomes among the student population” – engagement and progress of e.g. BME students, students from low participation areas.

4      “As an enabler for the development and introduction of adaptive learning” – personalised learning delivered at scale.

Interested in the instrumentalist approach here: “as a tool”, “as an enabler” seems to make this inescapable. Needs – I would say – more recognition of the fact that the platforms, data sources, infrastructures are socio-technical: informed, at the very least, by the humans who created them. Who analyses the learning analytics? What would a posthuman analysis of learning analytics look like?

Some other interesting points made in the Introduction:

Imperative for universities to obtain value from the rich data sources they are building up about their learners. Information known about a person in advance of their application, data accumulated about educational progress, learners likely to withdraw can be identified (p. 12).

This is fair enough, but by heck there’s the potential for a lot of inequality and leveraging of privilege here. Students being judged by their past absolutely inhibits room for development, especially among young people for whom university may be a ‘fresh start’. Also issues around linearity of university experience, who (or what) defines what ‘progress’ looks like, and the fact that new university students are ‘starting’ from different places. Achievement at university level may be a line to reach (1st class, 2.i, 2.ii, etc.) but potential is not.

Learning analytics can furnish teachers with information on the quality of educational content and activities they are providing, and on teaching and assessment processes.

 Identifying a problem is great and useful, but solving that problem is even more important. Can learning analytics help here? Also, suggests that the quality of educational content and activities is fundamentally based on the – what, ability? – of the teacher, rather than the institutional pressures that teacher is under, things like the TEF disrupting good practices, austerity, the socio-economic climate, funding, university overcrowding, lack of resources, etc. It seems perhaps a little good to be true.

Benefits for learners include giving students better information on how they are progressing and what they need to do to meet their educational goals, which has the potential to transform learning and their understanding of how they learn by providing continual formative feedback.

That is, unless some of the things the students are doing – and possibly not doing well – are not trackable e.g. how well a student takes notes while they’re reading, for my students, is a pretty big deal. How will formative feedback be provided there? Tyranny of assessment, tyranny of evidence-base. And, if automated, couldn’t this be demotivating? 

 Adaptive learning systems are emerging to help students develop skills and knowledge in a more personalised way; “set to revolutionise the teaching of basic skills and the provision of educational content” (p. 13).

Basic skills? Such as…I don’t know enough about STEM to know if that would work there, but within HASS I can’t think of that many basic skills that this could help. Critical thinking, synthesising diverse opinions, forming an argument, developing a critical voice, clarity of expression – would these be ‘basic skills’?  Feels like quite a narrow view of what HE learning might be; in my experience, both as student and librarian it isn’t just box-ticking.


March 17, 2017 at 08:47AM
Open in Evernote

2 Replies to “What I’m reading”

  1. Great points here.

    ‘Who analyses the learning analytics?’

    This is a really important question! I don’t think it can happen ‘from the inside’, I think it needs a ‘studies’, it needs ethnographic work – much like Science and Technology Studies.

    ‘especially among young people for whom university may be a ‘fresh start’’

    And this is where the ‘it’s just a tool’ response betrays a bit of a lack of responsibility. If technology is developed to measure and categorise enrolling students, then the developers are part of a system that will (almost certainly) be used by institutions to improve their retention rates.

    ‘Tyranny of assessment, tyranny of evidence-base.’

    Yes, there seems to be a bit of a lack of recognition that analytics turns almost every educational activity into an assessment…

    ‘but within HASS I can’t think of that many basic skills that this could help. Critical thinking, synthesising diverse opinions, forming an argument, developing a critical voice, clarity of expression – would these be ‘basic skills’? ‘

    Yes, and one might then assume analytics to ‘work better’ with certain kinds of ‘learning’, thus skewing provision, perhaps through institutional pressures, in those directions.

Comments are closed.