Technology & Innovation

This presentation by Richard Palmer at the JISC Digifest is a provocation not a promotion for learning analytics! There is so much bias in this piece that it’s hard to decide where to begin with taking it apart. It’s full of empty generalisations and predictions, so I start with issuing a WARNING – this read might damage your views on human teachers.

The argument that computers don’t come hung over, stressed or loaded with bias to work has been used many times, especially at a period in technological evolution that was led by the illusion that computers are infallible and perfectly neutral. For a long time, we know that neither is the case. Apart from this already idealistic view, computer systems and networks pose the greatest of all security risks to our societies (from petty criminals to cyber warfare). Why then should we or would we entrust them with education?

The vision presented is that computers can improve attainment, progression and the educational experience of students, thus leading to better grades and retention rates. This is naive at best! Computer-led education too is human managed – by humans that are no pedagogues but algorithmic programmers, statisticians, and profit makers, mostly ignorant of human psychology and development. The implication here is that human teachers wouldn’t know how to improve attainment, progression and experience, but that’s wrong, for it is the human collective (aka. education system) that sets these quality indicators of what it means to be successful. It is determined by micro-to-macro economic thinking of the labour market, politics, parents’ ambitions, value systems, social needs, and so forth. Not so long ago, humanistic education and educational selection was seen as the quality benchmark, now it is market education (employability, entrepreneurship, civic compliance) and massiveness that characterises it. Can machines set these values? Should they?

Another dystopia is promoting services connected to the idea “all watched over by machines of loving grace”, where systems survey your every move and then bug you with sending messages with “can I help you…?” This is followed by the thought that machines would judge work efforts and “intelligence” of students and then again bugs them with support spam if they perform under their algorithmic prediction. The mention of “objective criteria” makes me laugh in this context, in a world where fake news and post-truth knowledge dominate the headlines every day. The age of objectivism is long over.

A criticism against humans expressed by Palmer is that they are sluggish in changing and cling to ways things have been done in the past. I disagree with such a prejudice. Human history has always been polarised between progress and conservation. We tend to cling to the “known” because routines of the familiar help us be efficient in terms of our brain power and energy consumption. Innovation is always connected to risk assessment, but it isn’t fair that there hasn’t been evolution beyond the natural. And, after all, we invented machines to change production processes (like the mentioned looms).

Comparing the guidance of a young student with driving a car in complexity actually answers itself – a car is just another machine with simple mechanical responses. A student embedded in society is a complex system that has more to do with chaos theory then with algorithms. True, computers don’t turn up hung over or stressed, but they do crash frequently, and network failures cause entire workplaces to stand still. What’s better? Well, can you communicate with a crashed computer? And, turning it around, with a hung over student I can still communicate on some level – even if it is just to buy him time to recover! Can a computer do the same and understand why he does it?

Here’s a good thing about humans that’s not in the paper: We can think flexible and context specific, whence we can accommodate special needs and wishes. Compare this to the experience in a wifi-governed ordering system in a restaurant (when asking for rice instead of fries) or to a computer till at the supermarket – will it tell you that you can get two for one if the algorithm is dominated by maximising profits for the company? Will it send you to the shop opposite because they have a better offer? Such things happen every day between humans. They are not regular programmed events, they are social interactions.

Yes, technologies will improve. Yes, there is a danger that machines will replace human teachers (at least in certain functionalities), but it is preposterous to anticipate that this will lead to a better world!

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There have been persistent calls for transparency and algorithmic accountability in learning analytics. Quite recently, there was a discussion at an LASI event in Denmark on that topic.

There are good arguments for more transparency in developing and delivering learning analytics products. Presumably, teachers can derive better informed interventions from visualisations of learning data when they understand what goes in, how it is weighted and processed, and what comes out.

However, the discussion also moved very much into the direction of “personalised learning analytics” with questions like “at what point of comprehension educators are happy to trust products”, or asks whether this might be achieved if “the analytics system demonstrates to your satisfaction that it is attending to the same signals that you value”.  It goes on to challenge vendors (and researchers) that “information should be available and understandable to different kinds of learning scientists and learning professionals”. Ulla Lunde Ringtved asks: “do we need a kind of product declaration and standardization rules to secure user knowledge about their systems?”

I think this is going too far, without much hope and without much value to end users. After all, we are talking about “products”, i.e. ready made things. Vendors would not and could not deliver out-of -the-box, build-your-own, tweak-the-data, customise-the-algorithmic-process learning analytics tools. And data consumers would not want it! Teachers and students are surrounded by black boxes of all kinds, including Google, Blackboard and other VLEs, Facebook, etc. There is evidence that lack of transparency has no correlation to trust. In our lives, we don’t understand most of the tools that we use: the digital camera, the electronic alarm clock, and so forth. And we don’t have to! As long as they work.

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Bildergebnis für "Shadow IT"

Here is an interesting summary of the challenges of organisational IT architectures. While in previous (now almost prehistoric) architectures the so-called Managed Learning Environment (MLE) was built with the intent of an all-integrated systems and single sign-on architecture, nowadays, Shadow IT services are booming. A lot of learning services are run in the Cloud, including the very powerful Microsoft Office 365 or mail servers. On the one hand, this external hosting is handy as it saves on a lot on internal manpower and improves the security of individual services (such as spam control, virus checks, etc.). On the other, as the article rightly expresses, it outsources the control over these services and is often bypassing the IT professionals. It often also leads to accumulation of costs in various departments where centrally managed (Cloud) services could be cheaper.


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There is much uncertainty about ethics and privacy in learning analytics which hampers wider adoption. In a recent article for LAK16, Hendrik Drachsler and I tried to show ways in which trusted learning analytics can be established compliant with existing legislation and the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the European Commission, which will come into force in 2018. In short, four things need to be established:

  • Transparency about the purpose: Make it clear to the users what the purpose of data collection is and who will be able to access it. Let users know that data collection is limited to fulfil only the intended purpose effectively.
  • Informed consent: Get users to agree to data collection and processing, by telling them what data you are collecting, for how long data will be stored, and provide reassurance that none of the data will be open for re-purposing or use by third parties. According to the GDPR, approval can be revoked and data of individual users must then be deleted from the store – this is called “the right to be forgotten”.
  • Anonymise: Replace any identifiable personal information and make the individual not retrievable. In collective settings data can be aggregated to generate abstract metadata models.
  • Data security: Store data, ideally encrypted, in a (physically) safe server environment. Monitor regularly who has access to the data.
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This is an interesting thought: Tore Hoel and Weiquin Chen in their paper for the International Conference on Computers in Education (ICCE 2016) suggest that the forthcoming European data protection regulation (GDPR), which is to be legally implemented in all member states by 2018, actually may drive pedagogy!

As unlikely as this may sound, I think they got a point. The core of the GDPR is about minimisation of data and use limitation. This restricts data collection to specified purposes and prevents re-purposing. It puts a bar on random collection of users’ digital footprints and sharing (selling) them for other – not clearly declared – purposes. This restriction to minimisation and specific use in turn will (perhaps) lead to more focus on the core selling point, i.e. pedagogic application of analytics.

I have previously articulated my concerns that most institutions intending to use LA applications will have to rely on third parties, where, at present, it isn’t obvious that they comply with Privacy by Design and by Default principles as demanded. Additionally to making their case to the educational customers about protecting the data of learners and teachers, there are now more pressures on them to provide tools and services that actually improve learning, not the revenue in advertising or data sharing. So, yes, I am optimistic that Tore and Weiquin are right in saying that this presents “an opportunity to make the design of data protection features in LA systems more driven by pedagogical considerations”!

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If you are like me on different scholarly social networks simultaneously, you probably asked yourself this same question: why do my analytics diverge so greatly between these platforms?

I have one article that has been cited 208 times on Google Scholar, 106 times on ResearchGate, and only 7 times on Another more recent one shows a different distribution with only 1 citation on Google Scholar, 0 on ResearchGate, but 17 on


There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, although I cannot exactly remember, I might have uploaded the papers at different times to different platforms so there may be a time lapse issue involved. Secondly, my social networks (following and followers) in these platforms vary, despite a large overlap. Thirdly, the platform audience might differ, as some might be more prominent in one country or language than in another. Fourthly, however, and that’s my point for writing this post, the analytics involved in each tool vary and send out different messages, as I have contemplated in this other post.

The remaining question is what to do with this “information”? Shall I go and add all the sums together? Or are they counting the same citation in every tool? Should I go and boost my profile in the underrepresented platform by filling in more of my personal data, metadata interests, or follow even more people? Shall I perhaps start a marketing campain by spamming people with e-mail links to my articles on platform X? As long as I do not know how the figures are compiled, the system remains a biased blackbox that I can take on surface value. It may even use my figures for some other purpose than merely telling me how popular a scholar I am. Let’s not forget that the providers are in fact competitors in another world, so for them to reassure me that in their platform I get more citations than in the other, they are doing themselves a favour. I myself only have the option to decide which of the figures and platforms I trust and which ones I don’t.

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If you build them yourself, learning analytics tools can do what you expect them to. That is the idealised scenario in the learning analytics community, meaning that in order to get valuable insight and foresight from your learners’ data, one should start with a proper learning analytics design! This includes what data will be collected, how data will be cleaned, what the relevant indicators and weightings are, and how data will be processed using appropriate and tested algorithms.


However, more often than not, learning analytics is conducted via third party tools, such as VLE platforms, twitter youtube or facebook APIs, or separately sold tools. These tools are intransparent and sometimes open to changes out of control or even visibility of the user. Using built in analytics tools from third party software requires caution in its interpretation, for the algorithms may be biased toward some purpose other than achieving better understanding of learner behaviours.

Naturally, we cannot assume that every institution will build their own well designed learning analytics environment, and even if they did, modern networked learning using cloud-based services will always limit its scope. I do think, however, that transparency of the underlying engines is important, and that, just like with the terms of service, notification of changes to the algorithms would give a more transparent experience and thus higher validity for learning analytics.


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I am always wary when it comes to hyping a new technology. As the recent LAK16 global conference has hinted at, Learning Analytics may just have reached the height of the Gardener hype cycle.


Sure, Learning Analytics has its promises to create new insights into learning and a new basis for learner self-reflection or support services. But it is dangerous to expect it to produce “truth about learning”! A forthcoming paper I recently reviewed covers the promising influence LA has on the Learning Sciences and rightly demands that more learning theories should be put at the basis for LA, but, as Paul Kirschner expressed in his keynote presentation, there are many types of learning and often in LA research and development they are simplified and generalised.

To correctly ground our expectations in some sort of reality, we only need to look at areas where data analysis and predictions have long been used to “tell the truth” and to predict the future in order to take appropriate measures: politics, economics, and the weather forecast. Since it is without human unpredictability, the weather forecast has become the most accurate of the data-heavy sciences, yet, even there, the long term predictions still carry a strong element of randomness and guesswork. Do we want to risk the future of students’ lives by basing them on 75% probabilities?

Even where there is higher accuracy, the question may be raised about algorithmic accountability. Who will be held responsible and how can anyone make a claim against a failed prediction. This risk isn’t as present in the commercial world, where an inaccurate shopping suggestion through targeted advertisements can simply be ignored, but in education careers are at stake. From a managerial perspective, while it is scientifically fabulous to have a 75-80% accuracy in predictions of highly specific drop-out scenarios, there is a cost-benefit issue related to this. To simply propose that system alerts should trigger teachers’ attention on particular students, and student support services then need to call up that particular student (which they may actually like as much as a phone call from the bank selling new services) doesn’t cut it. As a cheaper alternative, I ,sarcastically, suggested to use a random algorithm to pick a student for receiving special attention that week.

It is also worth contemplating in how much predictions about the success of learners may become self-fulfilling prophesies. Learning Analytics predictions are typically based on a number of assumptions forming the “student model”. One big assumption is that of a stable teaching/learning environment. If everything runs linear and “on rails” then it is relatively easy to say that the learning train departing from station A will eventually reach station B. However, it’s nowadays well recognised that learning is situated and human teachers are didactically and psychologically influencing the adaptivity of the learning environment. It would, in my mind, require much higher levels of intelligence for algorithms to achieve the same support as human teachers, but if it did, what would then become of our teachers? What would be the role of human teachers if LA and AI take over decision making? What qualities would they need to possess or could they just be obsolete?

We cannot neglect the human social factor in other ways too: quantifying people inevitably installs a ranking system. While a leaderboard scheme based on LA data could be on the one hand a motivating tool for some students (as is the case in serious and other games), it could also lead to apathy in others when they realise they’ll never get to the top. The trouble is that people are being metatagged by analytics and these labels are very difficult to change. They also may exercise a reverse influence on the learner in that such labels become sticky parts of their personality or digital identity.

As so often with innovative approaches, hypes and new technologies, the benefit of Learning Analytics may not lie in what the analytics actually do or how accurate they are, but in a “side-effect” that is somewhat unexpected. I see part of the promise of learning analytics in starting a discussion on how we take decisions.

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This article may have serious ethical debates on its heels. Apparently, scientists succeeded in boosting or erasing individual memories of mice. As always, they tell us it is for our better future and for research into dementia and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Quite likely also a remedy against Altzheimer’s disease.

Being slightly foresighted, I see further potential in the entertainment industry when it’s claimed that it would be possible to enhance pleasant memories!

But what would this mean for learning? Once we are able to erase or boost individual memories as it pleases [others], we factually destroy the process of learning and knowledge acquisition. Imagine what this does to “critical thinking” and you’ll see the ethical nightmare arising from it. Since our identities are shaped by our experiences – good and bad ones – meddling with memories will change us in what and who we are. Brainwashing has always been the desire of regimes that want “simple” and obedient people to rule over.

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The EU has in it’s recent communications and funding programmes made it clear that creativity and entrepreneurship are critical competences that the education systems of the member states need to develop and focus on. It doesn’t confine itself to formal education but also to lifelong learning contexts and is embedded in several calls and vision papers by the Commission.

So why are these two rather opposite skill sets so important?

I see two main reasons for this emphasis: Firstly, entrepreneurial skills are the basis for self-employment, and this gets people off the unemployment records and the respective figures down. Figures that have been steadily growing over the past decades due mainly to de-industrialisation of developed countries, and automation of the service sector, as I articulated in this post. Self-employed people do not show up in unemployment figures, therefore, it’s simply convenient to increase their numbers however successful or not they are. Creativity, of course, is the driver of innovation and it is anticipated that creative entrepreneurs are more successful, hence boosting the economy and labour market.

Secondly, creativity and entrepreneurial risk taking are skills that are to date not being conducted by machines, which can already do most other human tasks – faster and cheaper. So, these two domains (soon perhaps the last ones of human superiority) cannot be automated yet to the extent where they replace people in a workplace. One is tempted to ask, though, how artificial intelligence will claim itself into these two sectors.

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