Big Campus, Big Data

A few reflections on an e-learning conference that I attended and presented at yesterday in Birmingham, hosted by a company named Talis that makes student-oriented learning tools. It was a really interesting programme, and I learned a lot – not just about e-pedagogies and emerging digital tools, but also about how university libraries work and the large-scale planning that goes on behind the scenes.


I’ll come back to that later, but the main thing I wanted to address is the huge conversation that was had throughout the day concerning student data and analytics. I make pretty heavy use of my university’s ‘virtual learning environment (VLE)’, i.e. online teaching platform, so I was already aware of the way these tools gather data on student activity. As an instructor I can readily see when students log into the VLE, how much time they spend on it, how many times they’ve posed in the discussion forums, how much time they spend watching lecture videos, how many of the readings they access…. The list goes on. And while some of this information can be useful, particularly if a student really goes off grid and we’re trying to figure out if s/he is making any contact with the course, for the most part I avoid looking at the data. This is because 1) I typically don’t have a specific question in mind when doing so and 2) I don’t think my students know that I can see this and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s like looking in on someone through a two-way mirror when they don’t realise they’re being observed.

So the very interesting thing to emerge early in the conference yesterday (the very first session, in fact), and to keep coming up throughout the rest of the panels, was the fact that educators, librarians, HE/FE managers, commercial providers, you name it, are thinking more and more about this data, and how to collect, analyse, and use it. There’s clearly some powerful opportunities here. Student clicks on digitised reading lists can help libraries figure out how often certain books or articles are being accessed, and this in turn can help guide purchasing. Counting swipe card entries at the library can help us figure out periods of peak demand, and then tailor opening hours accordingly. Minutes watched in instructional videos can show us which recordings are finding an audience, and which are being overlooked. Data is of course a form of evidence, and evidence helps create usable knowledge.

So far, so good. All of this is pretty old hat and I hope and assume that we’ve already been doing some of this at my university for quite some time. The thing that caught me a little off guard, though, and that now has me thinking, is the fact that much of the data that people were talking about yesterday is de-aggregated and de-anonymised. It is individual-specific, and one of the many possible visions proposed is that we could call up a student’s record in our system and, alongside his/her photo, get a summary and visualisation of his/her digital learning activity. The fuzzy slide below shows one of a few examples I saw during the day of a single student profile – all the little graphs in it document things like a student’s swipe card usage, log ins to the university student system, log ins to the VLE, books and articles accessed – basically, anything that produces digital analytics.

Now after seeing all this, I realised that I was incredibly naive not to anticipate this sort of data collection and analysis. But, there you have it, I was. And while I do see the possibility for some of this analysis to be of benefit to students, I have reservations about tracking the activity of individuals and building it into their student records. One thing that I found encouraging was the fact that Jisc, the UK organisation dedicated to developing the digital potential of teaching and research in the country, has been consulting with the National Union of Students on an informed consent policy for students (and presumably something like this should be in the works for staff too, especially given the recent news about staff tracking at Univ. of Edinburgh?). But I couldn’t quite get a sense of how robust those conversations have been, or the extent to which they’re genuinely collaborative versus instrumental (my next step will be to find some time to read through Jisc’s code of practice on the topic, kindly tweeted by one of the delegates). I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the slightly flippant attitudes expressed in the more informal bits of some of the presentations, but as they were a bit more off-the-cuff I’ll avoid reading too much into them here.

A couple other observations from the day – first, that academics can be frustrating for library staff to work with, especially when they don’t fully think through the practical circumstances of education. There were several comments suggesting that we often just don’t get it – we assign obscure and difficult to find readings; we are over-precious about our teaching practices, sometimes to the detriment of students; we don’t make the time to work with colleagues in the library to set up a learning environment that benefits everyone. I think these are all fair criticisms, as long as we recognise that they’re not one-size-fits all. A lot of academics – most, even! – do care an awful lot about their students, even if they show it in different and at times inscrutable ways.

Which brings me to my second observation. There was quite a lot of comment about academics assigning readings that are not as accessible/affordable/scalable/popular as others, and some sense of frustration that they don’t take a more practical route. I can understand this, especially in huge lecture classes in which demand for key texts is going to be very high. But I also think it’s important that we remember that books aren’t always easily swappable ‘products’, with one working just as well as another. They are forms of knowledge, and sometimes very unique and inimitable forms at that, and it’s essential that we design our courses in a way that puts that knowledge first. Of course, if we really can’t find a way to create access to that knowledge for our students, then we need to find a different solution, which might mean a different book, or a single (and legally) digitised chapter of that book, or an apologetic notice to students at the start of the course that they’ll have to buy that book themselves. But it’s so important to me that we never start putting knowledge second, and tools and products first. Good news though – I think everyone I met and spoke to yesterday at the conference would agree. The more all parts of the university listen to one another, and work together, the better we’ll get at identifying and achieving our common goals.

Two final points before I finish, both with pictures. First, although I thought the topics and discussions at the conference were great, this event like so many would have really benefited from greater diversity in its plenary speakers. Of the 11 people I saw on the main stage, 10 were men.

And second, the final joy of the day was getting to go searching in the Library of Birmingham for the Shakespeare touchtable that our MAs helped create, and to spend more than a few minutes enjoying its delights. Brilliant work you guys!!

   

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