Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Useful "analytics" – Faces as an example

A couple of weeks ago I expressed one of my reservations with the large buckets of money and time universities (and others) are currently investing in learning analytics in a blog post titled Bugger analytics, just give me useful information. My reservation is that the learning designers, data scientists, commercial software vendors, management and other members of Geohegan’s (1994) technologists’ alliance are so enamoured of the theoretical future possibilities of learning analytics they are ignoring (or perhaps are possibly completely ignorant) of the current information needs of learners and teachers. The following is an attempt at a small example

Faces and photo galleries

I currently teach pre-service teachers. As part of my course the students head out for three weeks Professional Experience in a school. One of the most common problems the pre-service teachers face in the initial stages of their time in a classroom, is learning the names of their students. For many this has been made simpler because many schools now have information systems that can print out a couple of pages with students names next to student photos. These pages are amongst the first requests the many of the pre-service teachers make and they then spend time memorising names.

This has been a problem in University education as well. Reek and Reek (1996, p. 15) writing in the context of a course with 350 students

A vital part of the laboratory instructor’s job is to make the students feel comfortable and welcome. This requires that they learn the students’ names quickly. Many of our faculty have difficulty matching names and faces, as we have a large number of students, To assist the faculty in learning to recognize their students and to facilitate students getting to know their classmates, we decided to build an electronic class photo album containing pictures and short personal sketches for each student in the class

They then proceed to tell the story of how they used their Silicon Graphics Indys to take student photos as part of an ice breaker at the start of labs. The photos were displayed using this new thing called the World-Wide Web via “Mosaic or Netscape”. (One of their big problems was running out of disk space, what with 250+ students and “massive files” averaging 220Kb, they had to dedicate a disk to the project).

When you move to teaching by distance education or online learning and have students you never meet face-to-face, having photos of students can be beneficial. During the late 90s and early this century most university enterprise systems did not provide this feature. Even though these systems actually stored student ID card photos in a central database, the idea that providing access to these photos to teaching staff would be beneficial never got to the implementation phase.

We’re now in 2013 and I work in an institution where I cannot get access to a page that lists basic information about my students (name, campus, location, etc) and their photo. The institution’s multi-million dollar ERP system – the last fad promised to revolutionise the information needs of universities – doesn’t provide it. Moodle, the institution’s LMS, does provide access to photos – if the students update their profile – but not necessarily in a way that will usefully fulfil the above need.

Enter Faces a Moodle block that was announced today. It’s described as

It can be difficult to put a name to so many faces! Faces is a simple Moodle block that allows teachers to print out a collection of names and profile photos of those students who attend their classes.

Faces can print a collection of profile photos in grid format for the entire class or by group. It can be useful for use in the classroom or meetings when its useful to ‘put a name to a face’

Small examples and indefinite postponement

Faces and the desire to associate names to faces is, in the scheme of things, a fairly small-scale need. That’s certainly how I’d imagine it would be seen by the governance structures around institutional e-learning. Governance processes serve an important purpose, but they also suffer a flaw (or more). A governance process is from one perspective is a priority scheduling algorithm. One of it’s task is to priortise needs to ensure efficient utilisation of a scarce resource. Anyone forced to sit through an Operating Systems course will now that priority scheduling algorithms run the risk of a problem called indefinite postponement (aka starvation).

In indefinite postponement, objects with low priority are likely to be starved of the scarce resource. They never get a go because there is always an object of a higher priority.

Learning analytics can be defined as the provision of useful information to people in ways that action can be taken to improve learning. As learning analytics increasingly becomes an enterprise concern, it is increasingly like to suffer this problem of indefinite postponement and miss opportunities like this. Opportunities like this are important, because a University learning ecosystem is a complex adaptive system. Small changes in complex adaptive systems can lead to significant changes.

So, some possible suggestions to address this problem might include

  • Don’t focus so much on the multi-million dollar vendor product and the complex analysis methods that you forget about the simple information needs of the learners and teachers.
  • Modify the governance process to purposely allow some of the small scale projects to get a go.
  • Supplement your large scale, centralised enterprise learning analytics platform project with lots of safe-fail probes.
  • Set up your learning platform to break out of the constraints of scarcity. e.g. break out of the single integrated system (single point of failure) approach and adopt a network mindset


Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? In S. Bapna, A. Emdad, & J. Zaveri (Eds.), (pp. 438–447). Baltimore, MD: IBM.

Reek, M., & Reek, K. (1996). An Electronic Class Photo Album. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 28(4), 15–18.


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1 Comment

  1. beerc

    Thoroughly agree. Holy grail syndrome. Higher education continues to look for “silver bullets” in the pursuit of improving outcomes in an increasingly volatile environment. Revolutionary change via clearly defined and over-managed projects that rarely work, are always funded over evolutionary approaches that tend to be more effective (in my opinion). The less funding for higher education, the more dominant these managerial (and ineffective) approaches become, along with a less effective education system. The problem you describe here specifically with learning analytics, is perhaps just another symptom of the spiral Australian higher education is in.

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