I’ve now read a few articles assessing the pros and cons of learning analytics and, regardless of the methodologies employed, there are patterns and themes in what is being found. The benefits include institutional efficiency and institutional performance around financial planning and recruitment; for students, the benefits correspond to insights into learning and informed decision-making. These are balanced against the cons: self-fulfilling prophecies concerning at-risk students, the dangers of student profiling, risks to student privacy and questions around data ownership (Roberts et al., 2016; Lawson et al., 2016). This is often contextualised by socio-critical understandings which converge on notions of power and surveillance; some of the methodologies explicitly attempt to counter presumptions made as a result of this, for example, by bringing in the student voice (Roberts et al., 2016).
In reading these articles and studies, I was particularly interested in ideas around student profiling and student labelling, and how this is perceived (or sometimes spun) as a benefit for students. Arguments against student profiling focus on the oversimplification of student learning, students being labelled on past decisions, student identity being in a necessary state of flux (Mayer-Schoenberger, 2011). One of the things, though, that’s missing in all of this, the absence of which I am feeling keenly, is causation. It strikes me that big data and learning analytics can tell us what is, but not always why.
A similar observation leads Chandler to assert that Big Data is the kind of Bildungsroman of posthumanism (2015). He argues that Big Data is an epistemological revolution:
“displacing the modernist methodological hegemony of causal analysis and theory displacement” (2015, p. 833).
Chandler is not interested in the pros and cons of Big Data so much as the way in which it changes how knowledge is produced, and how we think about knowledge production. This is an extension of ideas espoused by Anderson, in which he argues that theoretical models are becoming redundant in a world of Big Data (2008). Similar, Cukier and Schoenberger argue that Big Data:
“represents a move away from trying to understand the deeper reasons behind how the world works to simply learning about an association among phenomena, and using that to get that done” (2013, p. 32).
Big Data aims not at instrumental knowledge, nor causal reasoning, but the revealing of feedback loops. It’s reflexive. And for Chandler, this represents an entirely new epistemological approach for making sense of the world, gaining insights which are ‘born from the data’, rather than planned in advance.
Chandler is interested in the ways in which Big Data can intersect with ideas in international relations and political governance, and many of his ideas are extremely translatable and relevant to higher education institutions. For example, Chandler argues that Big Data reflects political reality (i.e. what is) but it also transforms it through enabling community self-awareness. It allows reflexive problem-solving on the basis of this self-awareness. Similarly, it may be seen that learning analytics allows students to gain understanding of their learning and their progress, possibly in comparison with their peers.
This sounds great, but Chandler contends that it is necessarily accompanied by a warning: it isn’t particularly empowering for those who need social change:
Big Data can assist with the management of what exists […] but it cannot provide more than technical assistance based upon knowing more about what exists in the here and now. The problem is that without causal assumptions it is not possible to formulate effective strategies and responses to problems of social, economic and environmental threats. Big Data does not empower people to change their circumstances but merely to be more aware of them in order to adapt to them (p. 841-2).
The problem of lack of understanding of causation is raised in consideration of ‘at risk’ students – a student being judged on a series of data without any (potentially necessary) contextualisation. The focus is on reflexivity and relationality rather than how or why a situation has come about, and what the impact of it might be. Roberts et al. found that students were concerned about this, that learning analytics might drive inequality through advantaging only some students (2016).The demotivating nature of the EASI system for ‘at risk’ students is also raised by Lawson et al. (2016, p. 961). Too little consideration is given to the causality of ‘at risk’, and perhaps too much to essentialism.
His considerations of Big Data and international relations leads Chandler to assert cogently that:
Big Data articulates a properly posthuman ontology of self-governing, autopoietic assemblages of the technological and the social (2015, p. 845).
No one here is necessarily excluded, and all those on the periphery are brought in. Rather paradoxically, this appears to be both the culmination of the socio-material project, as well as an indicator of its necessity. Adopting a posthumanist approach to learning analytics may be a helpful critical standpoint, and is definitely something worth exploring further.