Learning analytics systems typically measure data on resource usage, attendance, and so on. This is no different during lockdown, it’s just that the data collected is a bit different.
Universities have been using digital tools such as virtual learning environments (VLEs) for years, but with the sudden move to remote delivery, they are being used in different ways.
Keeping students engaged
Learning analytics not only tracks whether students are using a VLE, but what specific resources are being accessed, such as whether they are using digital tools like blogs, wikis, journals, discussion boards, recorded lectures, etc.
It can also track which library resources are being used most, whether they are e-books, journals, or audio-visual content. This can help universities understand what sources students are using most and which are not as popular.
This is especially important when face-to-face feedback and physical interaction with students is not possible.
For example, Wrexham Glyndwr University has been using learning analytics to investigate how its Moodle VLE is used, and how students are interacting with materials and assessments. Around 25 per cent of the student body has a declared disability and/or additional learning requirements, which means that learning analytics is an important piece of the puzzle in giving these students the best experience possible while face-to-face interaction is limited.
Lecture capture is also something that has been growing in popularity over the last few years and is one of the ‘newer’ elements of learning analytics. It is currently used in two main ways.
Firstly, in the delivery of synchronous classes, in which students 'attend' a class in real time as they might in a traditional lecture theatre, only via online streaming tools. Sessions are recorded and uploaded to the VLE so that students can revisit them.;
Secondly, lecture capture is also commonly used for asynchronous classes. This means that lecturers create a pre-recorded lecture that students can access in their own time, rather than watching it live. This can be preferable for various reasons, such as scheduling conflicts for lecturers who may be in different time zones to students, or for those who are uncomfortable delivering live sessions.
Capturing data on the interest and attendance of virtual classes gives staff insight into what content most engages students, helping them to understand the methods of delivery that are hitting the mark.
Knowing how students react to online learning is also a key motivator for universities now more than ever. Not only because of the recent forced change, but also because this move to increased online delivery is creating a greater shift in HE.
There are institutions whose staff may have previously been reluctant to engage with digital technology, but now are forced to use it. Staff may, therefore, realise it’s not as scary as once thought, and are perhaps encouraged to incorporate more of a blended approach to learning in the future. So, having systems in place to harvest and analyse data on usage and engagement will pay off long after lockdown ends.
Supporting mental health
But it’s not only academic support that students need. Being able to understand how learners are coping psychologically is also essential.
As learners may be struggling with feelings of isolation, there is an increased focus on helping them maintain good mental health and wellbeing. Learning analytics systems can support here.
As well as understanding how students are engaging with course materials, being able to see when they’re accessing their learning, or if there are periods of no engagement, can be an important indicator of whether a student is struggling mentally.
In fact, the original raison d’etre behind our learning analytics service, back when it was co-designed, was to inform tutors or pastoral staff about what was going on with students, so that they would have some background for their face-to-face conversations.
Sometimes students aren’t comfortable bringing up the fact that they are struggling directly, so if tutors have an inkling from the engagement data, there is a greater likelihood that they can then approach students to check in with them. Of course, it is essential that any personal data collection has the prior consent of students.
Universities will deal with this support in their own individual ways. Some will have a specific personal tutor that focuses on a handful of students, whereas others will have a combination of academic and pastoral support from various staff teams. Either way, having an insight into how students operate day-to-day can be an invaluable starting point.
Data is often seen as something cold and removed from the human element, but in reality, it’s a window into that very humanity, and can form an essential foundation for keeping students on track.