Emerging from research into the visualisation of argument construction, the analysis of learner interactions within networks has become widely recognised in recent years as a rich and effective means of providing feedback on learner progress (Najjar, Duval and Wolpers, 2006) – facilitating personalised learning (Beck and Woolf, 2000), developing collective intelligence (De Liddo, et al., 2012) automating metadata annotation (Downes, 2004), and offering opportunities for enhanced discoverability (Siemens, 2012).
Learning Analytics (LA) is a relatively new area of research that is comparable with other fields, such as Big Data, e-science, Web analytics, linguistic analysis and Educational Data Mining (EDM). All of these fields use large collections of in-depth data to identify patterns. While EDM and LA have many similarities, EDM tends to focus on analysing metrics with the aim of building prediction models (e.g. Kizilcec, Piech and Schneider, 2013; Wen, Yang and Rosé, 2014), while LA inclines to data analysis for developing learning processes. Both applications of technology have the potential to disrupt and have critical implications for future teaching and learning practice, with far reaching, but little understood outcomes.
The underlying assumptions of LA are based on the belief that Web-based proxies for behaviour can be used as evidence of knowledge, competence and learning. Through the collection and analysis of “trace data‟ (e.g. learners‟ search profiles, their website selections, and how they construct, use and move information on the Web – Stadtler and Bromme, 2007; Greene, Muis and Pieschl, et al., 2010) learning analysts explore “how students interact with information, make sense of it in their context and co-construct meaning in shared contexts” (Knight, Buckingham Shum and Littleton, 2014:10). LA methods that focus on discussion forums include processes that identify learners’ attention, sentiment analysis (agreement or disagreement), learner activity, and relationships between learners within forums (De Liddo, et al., 2011).
Design of LA instruments is not neutral, but inevitably reflects the ideology, epistemology and pedagogical assumptions of the designers. Data are not value free; they require interpretation and are subject to “interpretative flexibility” as much as any other technological development (Collins, 1983; Hamilton and Feenberg, 2005). Historically, information and communication technology (ICT) interventions in education have been based on objectivist assumptions that learners’ ability to represent or mirror reality are key to judging evidence of knowing and learning. While still maintaining a strong position in summative assessment, over the past thirty years the assumptions underlying objectivism have been challenged by a growing body of constructivist thought which holds that the key to understanding how knowledge is built is through examining the interpretive process of learning (Jonassen, 1991). The practice of Learning Analytics broadly adheres to either an objectivist perspective, which prioritises the use of trace data to make evaluations of knowledge acquisition (assessment of learning), or a constructivist position which values the provision of feedback to facilitate improved learner self-awareness (assessment for learning).
Learning Analytics provides some evidence that awareness of peer feedback improves collaboration (Phielix, et al., 2011) and a key method for providing feedback is through drawing attention to useful interaction metrics through visualisation techniques. Duval (2011) asserts that data visualisation “dashboards‟ can provide useful feedback mechanisms for learners and educators which can aid their evaluation of learning resources, and which may lead to improved discovery of content that is better suited to their needs.
For example Murray et al. (2013) describe a prototype dashboard which aims to support learners’ online deliberations through the use of textual analysis to identify and monitor: reflection, questioning, conceptualising, peer interaction as well as other social awareness metrics. Equipped with such a dashboard, facilitators may monitor common online forum problems like off-topic conversation, conversation dominated by specific contributors and high emotional content.
Duval (2011) asserts that “one of the big problems around learning analytics is the lack of clarity about what exactly should be measured” (2011:15) and suggests that “typical measurements…of time spent, number of logins, number of mouse clicks, number of accessed resources…” (2011:15) are not adequate metrics for finding out how learning being accomplished. Visualising other data sources including “emotion and stress analytics” (Verbert, et al., 2014:1512) may be relevant to enhance reflection and monitoring.
Learning analytics involves common data mining techniques and as such may have potential problems with ethical values like privacy and individuality. Data mining makes it difficult for an individual to control how their information is presented or distributed. Van Wel and Royakkers (2004) have identified two main forms of data mining: “content and structure mining‟ and “usage mining‟:
“Content and structure mining is a cause for concern when data published on the Web in a certain context is mined and combined with other data for use in a totally different context. Web usage mining raises privacy concerns when Web users are traced, and their actions are analysed without their knowledge.” (van Wel and Royakkers, 2004:129).
Critics have focused on a number of problems with the outcomes of analysing learning. The reliable validation of human and automatic annotation is problematic and unresolved (Rourke, et al., 2003; de Wever, et al., 2006); crude feedback mechanisms can lead to efforts to “game the system‟, so that educators design learning objects to elicit positive responses regardless of the overall benefit to learners; analytics can lead to learner-dependence on feedback rather than their own understanding, and the ethical implications of combining and representing data are not fully comprehended (Shum and Ferguson, 2012).
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