encyclopedia britannica

My parents and ed-tech

Learning analytics treats students as numbers, invades privacy, and doesn’t elevate education. Originally published in IT Web 4 April 2003

When I was about 6 months old, my well-meaning and sleep- deprived parents bought me an indispensable and comprehensive education technology:  the multivolume, all- inclusive reference source known as the Encyclopædia Britannica. The salesman convinced them that this “august repository of serious information”, organized alphabetically by topic and arranged over 26 volumes, had an impeccable pedigree, an excellent reputation and a history of trustworthiness. The pitch worked.  The “robust intellectual content” of the Encyclopædia Britannica was theirs and my cash- strapped parents spent the next two years paying off their first education technology purchase.

Today, education technologies offer the 21st century parent, similarly concerned about their children’s educational future, an almost infinite number of learning opportunities. From the World Wide Web to Wikipedia, from Moodle to MOOCs, this century has embraced the interwebs as the new “multivolume, all inclusive reference source”.  The rich collections of data associated with these “learning opportunities” are starting to interest educational entrepreneurs who see rich pickings in the process of analyzing data and packaging it in sets of marketable information. Much like Amazon is able to look through all my online purchases and suggest a new good read, or Facebook is able to suggest friends by determining the degrees of separation between me and the rest of the world, the computational process of discovering patterns in large educational data sets (data mining) is being touted by educational entrepreneurs as a solution for group work, career choices, retention rates and a higher quality, personalized experience.

Learning analytics is the current all-encompassing term used
to describe this marriage between big data and educational records. Collecte data about students is being used to create models that will predict student progress and performance; and allow parents, students, teachers and administrators the ability to act on that information.

 Somewhere, probably in Silicon Valley, there’s a company or two coding an app that will collect all available data about students, including academic records, ANA test scores, financial circumstances, geographic location, attendance, assignments, progress, discipline, demographics and health. This company will soon be contacting your school or university IT administrator, claiming to offer counselling by aggregated data-mining.

Big data is hooking up with school reporting and Learning Analytics is their new love child. My guess is that the people coding this app do not have many educators on the design team. As Encyclopaedia Britannica was a sales-driven company, and not a scholarly one, data miners are looking at data as their source of profits. The absence of educators might make coders think that they are thinking outside of the box, but it is more likely that the absence of expertise or research will lead to an app that exacerbates current educational problems.  

My family’s Britannica sat on its own shelf in the lounge for years, and was used for the occasional school project, resolving points of debate and pressing flowers. Learning analytics may not be as benign. Learner analytics also comes at the expense of teacher-engagement.  Increasingly  stats- bound schools purchasing an app as
described above will allow teachers to monitor what  is happening from their desk instead of taking the opportunity to engage in student learning and questions, coaching, facilitating and getting to know their learners.

 Education is more than the collection of patterns of data. Learning analytics may promise unlimited and useful information on students, but treating students as numbers invades privacy and doesn’t elevate education. It could lead to a watered-down, prescriptive education system with little human or humanising engagement.

Encyclopaedia  Britannica’s
ubiquity was because the company was built by  “a culture of salesmen, not scholars”. With the likes of iPads, the Khan Academy and MOOCs, , I suspect that many parents, teachers, schools and faculties will soon also find themselves  under siege from similar Britannica- like salesmen, this time straight from Silicon Valley.  Their new pitch is
an appealing one. They tell you that you can choose to use the data generated by learning analytics to improve the quality of your students’ prospects or you can remain disconnected and disadvantage your students prospects.

There’s no doubt that we need to make a serious effort to understand the processes of learning in our 21 century world. Learning analytics, however, cannot begin to reflect the complexity of these learning processes. Education cannot be reduced to a set of data patterns. Putting our faith in educational entrepreneurs’ ability to create another “august repository of serious information” is very much like my parents’ well intentioned choice to buy a Britannica.

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