What Is Learning Analytics?
The Society for Learning Analytics Research defines the field as “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs,” but the short version is that learning analytics, as the name suggests, is any data-driven analysis of student learning.
Educators have been collecting data on their students for as long as they’ve been teaching. The decision to award a student a letter grade of A, B, C, D or F, based on their performance, creates a data point for someone to analyze. Contextualize those grades by considering the method with which a person was taught, their home life, their sleep habits or any number of other variables and — congratulations! — you’ve generated some very primitive learning analytics to assess.
Bart Collins was working in IT at Purdue University in the early 2000s when he and his colleagues first started looking for ways to harness the information they were gathering through early learning management systems.
“We were converging on common environments and trying to develop ways of using the data that might be in those environments to solve institutional problems,” he says.
Collins, who now works as the director of graduate studies for Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication, was involved in developing learning analytics–driven solutions during the early years of his tenure at the West Lafayette, Ind., university. He collected and analyzed data as part of an effort that eventually led to the creation of Course Signals, a solution launched in 2009 that tracked student progress in an effort to keep instructors and students well informed and allow for early intervention when warranted.
When it was released, Course Signals was a first-of-its-kind program, and it did more than just track students’ grades. It factored in demographic information, data collected from student activity within the course management system, the students’ prior academic histories and much more.
“What can we learn, uniquely, from the learning management environments that might give us better, additional, earlier insight into how students are doing?” says Collins in describing the creation of Course Signals.
While the efficacy of solution — particularly when it came to boosting student retention — was heavily scrutinized in the years after its release, the technology itself was a major step forward for learning analytics. It packaged the mountains of information institutions were collecting in an easy-to-understand way, with a targeted goal of helping both students to learn better and instructors to teach better.
How Can Learning Analytics Help Improve Student Outcomes?
As with any data set, the effectiveness of learning analytics depends a great deal on the quality and quantity of data coming in and on the careful use of that data by the people reviewing it.
To develop useful learning analytics, Collins believes that aim must be clear from the outset and that programs should be designed with the eventual outputs in mind. For example, when analyzing data taken from an LMS, the more detailed and deliberate the course design, the more granular the data you’ll be able to harvest. More granular data can help draw more specific conclusions.
“If you use the learning management system in trivial ways, you’ll get trivial information out of it,” says Collins. “Richer courses that plug in more features, have more content, enable more services and have more variation in what students are doing — that provides more diagnostically useful information.”
There are also challenges in asking the right questions of a particular set of data. Misinterpreting data, whether deliberately or not, can lead to wrong conclusions. Even asking the right questions might not be enough, because students are people, and analyzing human behavior without taking myriad known and unknown personal factors into consideration can have consequences.
“There are a lot of variables, a lot of assumptions, a lot of mitigating factors. It’s hard to even pose a clean question, in my mind,” says Collins.