Ranty Blog Post about Big Data, Learning Analytics, & Higher Ed


Well, here you go, Kyle…


You know what I’m sick of? Technical solutionism in higher education. Not necessarily “technological solutionism” as Evgeny Morozov writes and talks about it, though that’s part of the equation. I’m thinking about the tendency of policymakers and stakeholders to think a technical change (often involving advanced technologies) can solve a complex problem. I use the word “technical” in the way that Ronald Heifetz uses it in contrast to adaptive.

So, let’s assume that we have a “student success” problem in higher education. That is, too many students are starting but not completing college and/or too many students are accumulating too many “DFWs” and taking too long and too costly a journey to degree completion.

What kinds of “solutions” are being offered for this problem?

The “solution” I read and hear about most often these days is around “big data” and “learning analytics.” The most recent article I read was called “How Big Data is helping students graduate on time“. The article, the latest among many like it that I’ve read, is about how the UC system “…has recently developed a Time-to-Degree Early Warning System. It uses millions of current and historical data points to identify patterns and pinpoint factors that could be early predictors of academic struggle.”

Say there is a student with a C in calculus.

For the overwhelming majority of students, that grade wouldn’t be a cause for concern, especially if the student had a high overall GPA, Whitman said. But, in a few subspecialties that rely heavily on advanced calculus, that C grade might correlate to poor academic outcomes down the road.

The model can help advisers connect those students with math help – heading off an issue before it grows and ensuring they are ready to move on to more advanced study.

Woah, hold up… a C grade might correlate to poor academic outcomes down the road? Good thing we had millions of data points to get to that finding.

I respect that at the end of the article, the author writes “But no indicator, Easterly noted, can fully substitute for human judgment.” But, this is the latest of many articles I’ve read or conversations I’ve been a part of where there is unexamined, uncritical acceptance of the power of “big data” and analytics. People seem to genuinely believe that if just have enough data and squint REALLY hard at those data, we can begin to see the solutions to our student success problem.

I call BS.

Then, there’s the technical solution that has come to be called “nudging.” Mostly, these “nudges” appear to be not much more than text messages to students to notify them of or remind them about important deadlines or other key issues. First of all, whoever named this phenomenon was clearly not Jewish. When my Jewish grandmother called me a nudge, it was not a good thing. “One who pesters and annoys with persistent complaining.” Lovely. Secondly, text messages? Really? That’s what it takes?

Again, I call BS.

Taken together, then, if we treat our students as a collection of a million data points, whip up data dashboards that automatically send out “early warning” notifications, and pester the students with text messages, we’ll tackle the student success problem. #amirite?

There’s more where these technical “solutions” come from.

You know what’s never suggested as a solution? Better teaching and more awesome learning experiences. Maybe the root cause of the problem is not that students aren’t seeing early warning signs or that they’re missing key deadlines. Maybe the root cause of the degree completion problem is that they’re completely uninspired academically. Maybe the root cause of the degree completion problem is that their classes suck. Maybe the root cause of the degree completion problem isn’t that we haven’t looked hard enough at the data, but that we haven’t looked hard enough at the learning experiences our students are exposed to.

Look at the image below. I walk by classrooms like that multiple times every day. Why is this OK? Seriously, people rail against things like online learning all the time, but just accept that we jam students into giant lecture halls. And then we wonder why students disengage. Maybe if we just squint at enough data points and send a bunch of text messages…

WHAT IF our course bulletins and class registration systems weren’t boring-ass, purely operational systems, but were instead engines of serendipity that might inspire students to take classes of interest? What if every class had a course trailer that got students excited about learning? Seen this video my team did?

Ain’t Nothin’ But an HSEP Thang from VCU ALT Lab on Vimeo.

You think students wouldn’t run to take that course now? Nah, we just need to squint at enough data points and send a bunch of text messages…

WHAT IF students weren’t constantly doing what David Wiley calls disposable assignments and were asked to do work that was meaningful? Have you seen this course out of our School of the Arts, a “cultural passport” course where students are learning about the culture of Richmond and creating a calendar-based resource about cultural events that includes event details, reviews, interviews, etc. Or, this course where students aren’t writing papers about plant life in the James River basin, but actually creating a dynamic repository of images and information about plant life that anyone can see and use? Students enjoyed that course so much that they made their OWN course trailer about the course.

WHAT IF students were so excited about their courses that they made course trailers about the course to inspire the next group of students that came along? Nah, we just need to squint at enough data points and send a bunch of text messages…

WHAT IF we thought differently about “student engagement” and followed a different taxonomy of student engagement where love and connection were privileged?

Nah, we just need to squint at enough data points and send a bunch of text messages…

My friend and colleague Gary Stager is famous for asking teachers:

WHAT IF… you wake up every morning and ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure that this is the best seven hours of each student’s day?”

WHAT IF professors asked themselves a similar question, “I’ve got students for 3 hours a week, so what can I do to ensure that those are the best three hours of every student’s week?

I know, I know, I’m an idealist and we can’t possibly expect professors at a “research university” to think hard enough about their pedagogy to ensure that their classes are the best three hours of a student’s week. But, then we wonder why students disengage and drop out…

But, again, we probably just need to squint at enough data points and send a bunch of text messages…


2 thoughts on “Ranty Blog Post about Big Data, Learning Analytics, & Higher Ed”

  1. Well-said Jonathan, although I don’t think analytics are the problem, it’s where we put the agency for improvement: with students or with teachers and leaders. If we use data to empower leaders to make better decisions, we can provide richer learning experiences. If we use data to abdicate action and just increase the deluge of information to overwhelmed and disengaged students, we exacerbate the problem.

    I hope we’ll see some competitive differentiation from institutions that effectively use analytics to create more caring, engaged and fun learning environments.

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