Expansive Analytics & Engagement #LAK12

[Learning] begins in delight and ends in wisdom.

Gardner Campbell gave an interesting talk about the danger of reductive models of learning that reduce the scope of education by limiting views of adjacent possibilities. Gardner argues that learning is one of the most complex processes one could study where no single theory is a good representation of all observations.

A potential issue with the traditional VLE/LMS model is that it has nothing to do with the self, identity or complexity that form learning. As such any analytics that relate to individual performance (i.e. behaviourial) are uninteresting for learning. Identity is not about just the self, but also about the other sets of selves that we interact with. An interesting analytics would help understand and encourage connections with the world rather than attempt to control them (e.g. the filter bubble effect that reduces exposure to challenging viewpoints).

The issue is that measuring what you get leads to getting what you measure. Measuring 1-dimensional models of student performance (as success) and at-risk (as point of intervention) reduces learning to behaviourism approaches. The structures being measured are inscrutable methods to get from one point to another and Taylorist models can be applied to test the effectiveness of each station. However complexity is the new reality – learning is non-linear and unpredictable.

Instead models of analytics that involve measuring student contributions and how they link to the world, are more interesting and should encourage further contributions and connections. Here connections as engagement can provide dynamic indications of success. Also rather than looking for the moment a learner is ‘about to fail’ one might look for moments of ‘beginning to learn’ as the point of intervention in a system that is able to learn.

Similar to my previous post, measuring the ‘beginning to learn’ moment hints towards Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. and further prompts investigations utlising Engeström’s Expansive Cycles. Learning analytics should drive new models of understanding for personalised learning for which engagement may be the new metric.


Analysing Social Learning (#LAK12)

Dawson (2010) concludes that the value of learning analytics is to provide relevant and real-time visualisation that can assist staff to align their pedagogical practices more fully with the learning needs of all their students.

In an interesting webinar, Shane Dawson suggested that the VLE can be generalised into two tools: content page or discussion. Content is typically analysed via  session counts, dwell time, and downloads and discussions provide metrics relating to posts, replies, and views (modelled via Social Network Analysis (SNA)). I would adapt this to suggest that all activities in the VLE be viewed as discussions. Giest (2010) argues that interaction can be concrete and direct as in an online forum, but can also be abstract and indirect where the interactions or cultural tools of activity are represented in materialised forms such as content. In the hypermedia learning environment seeing activity as interactive (social) allows consistent analysis: while traditional hand-outs might show teacher-centric interactions, student-created content or collaborative Wikis may reveal different learning networks.

Some of the interesting findings that Dawson (2010) made were that students tend to interact with those of a similar ability, forming clusters of high and low performing learners. One explanation proposed was how this could represent  an effect of the Vygotskian zone of proximal development – learners gravitate within their zone and so engage with discussions at similar development levels. One might see this as an example of interaction creating conditions to identify zones (Chaiklin, 2003), where it is instruction that should create the zones (Geist, 2010). Dawson’s analysis finds a phenomenon inconsistent with this where staff interventions tend to gravitate towards the high performing networks.

Teaching staff were positioned in 81.7% of the high-performing and 34.61% of the low-performing student networks (pg. 746) and thus may be further restricting educational opportunities. One reason proposed was that in pursuing the values of a learning community it was often assumed that low end questions would be answered by other students. Whereas the tutor focused on the high performers because the questions were more difficult and so they felt more inclined to intervene. Rather than a shared project of community-wide learning students seem motivated to form networks that best enhance their individual grade performance (ego-centric).

One solution might be to use the SNA to identify peer-mediated instruction interventions (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2009). Where in practice peer groups contain a range of competency levels, ideas, conceptions, misconceptions and areas of expertise, learners can benefit from both the giving and receiving of ideas, embodied in different ways in both Vygotskian and Piagetian perspectives on social constructivism (Webb and Mastergeorge, 2003).

When designing successful social interactions and understanding the relation of technology to culture it is suggested that the only way to define the technological effects of the Internet is to build the Internet (Poster, 1995). Responsive feedback via SNA has shown how effective good visualisations of data can be in revealing these effects and allowing tutors to rebuild interactions or interventions.


Chaiklin, S. (2003). The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context (pp. 39-64). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dawson, S. (2010). “Seeing” the learning community: An exploration of the development of a resource for monitoring online student networking. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(5), 736-752.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (2009). Peer-mediated instruction. Better: Evidence-based Education, 1(1), 18-19.

Giest, H. (2010). The Formation Experiment in the Age of Hypermedia and Distance Learning. In B. van Oers, W. Wardekke, E. Elber, & R. van der Veer (Eds.), The Transformation of Learning [Kindle Edition]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Poster, M. (1995). Postmodern Virtualities. The Second Media Age. Blackwell.

Webb, N., & Mastergeorge, A. (2003). Promoting effective helping behavior in peer-directed groups. International Journal of Educational Research, 39(1-2), 73-97.

Learning Analytics and Leading Activity (#LAK12)

I have been pondering the last couple of weeks what type of data or patterns might one look for from learning analytics. There are lots of different projects I have seen or been involved in that are emerging:

  • Retention focused – identifying learners at-risk of drop-out from the course;
  • Performance focused – predicting final exam success;
  • Activity focused – quantitative views of activity;
  • Course focused – usually linked to a bench-marking of staff performance;
  • Engagement focused – what types of things are people doing;

A further idea emerged for me when reading the NY Times article:  ‘How Companies Learn Your Secrets‘. The article details how supermarkets might gather information about you. The main goal for shopper analytics is to identify approaching periods when consumer’s patterns are subject to change. For example the number one period for this is when a new baby is born, or in marketing terms when parents are ‘exhausted, overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs’.  The approaching aspect is crucial here as the earlier an intervention occurs the more likely it is to beat other interventions, or in other words they more likely they are to switch to your store.

A similar model emerges in Vygotksy’s (1978) concept of the Zone of Proximal Development.  Vygotsky proposes that for effective pedagogical interventions one must calculate at least two development levels: actual development – that which the learner can achieve unaided (e.g. tests) and potential development – that which the learner can achieve with support. The zone of proximal development is the difference between the two. Vygotsky argues that ‘by using this method we can take account of not only the cycles and maturation processes that have already been completed but also those processes that are currently in a state of formation, that are just beginning to mature and develop‘ (pg. 87).

The zone of proximal development refers to the maturing functions that are relevant for the next development period, and Chaiklin (2003) further clarifies that social interaction does not create these functions but provides conditions for identifying their existence and the extent they are developed. Interaction and social network analysis alongside behavioural psychology may offer insights while prompting some further thought on the design of interactions.

Vygotsky further suggests this requires a re-examination of formal subject disciplines and their relation to overall development. For Vygotsky this cannot be solved in a single formula and diverse research around the zone of proximal development is required. Fortunately learner analytics isn’t about a single formula either (despite its philosopher stone appeal) – semantically linked data allows diverse sets to be explored and may be directed at revealing the ‘ripeness’ of maturing functions. It seems such an approach to learning analytics (one focused on development) may require new approaches to designing learning environments, in which analytics are an integral tool rather than a retrospective analysis of existing data.


Chaiklin, S. (2003). The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context (pp. 39-64). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.