How far can one go to give personalised learning and careers advice to further education (FE) learners? It is certainly a challenge, given the sheer breadth of the sector.
First, there’s the diversity of learners, from school leavers to adults returning to education full or part-time, and those accessing prison education. Second, the qualifications, which range from GCSE resits through to degree-level apprenticeships. Finally, there’s the various destination pathways, from learners hoping to progress to higher education or go directly into employment.
How are colleges then meant to go about tailoring and creating individual learning experiences, effectively and efficiently?
A fast-emerging field, learning analytics offers colleges an opportunity to transform the way they deliver for learners.
As learners progress through their courses of study and interact with their college – for example, having their name taken on a register in class, going to the library or accessing a resource on the virtual learning environment (VLE) – they leave behind a digital footprint.
By identifying patterns in that footprint data, one can see whether one’s learners are performing against their potential, or conversely, if they might be at risk of dropping out. Say that a particular learner hasn’t logged onto the VLE for a time, or has missed their last couple of assignments. A learning analytics system would automatically flag up individuals displaying signs of disengaging, allowing an intervention far earlier (such as offering support in areas where they’ve fallen behind), to prevent them from failing or even exiting education altogether.
Importantly, from the data one may also be able to gain insights into how different individuals like to learn. For example, one learner may prefer to go to the library to study in the evening, another to access video resources on the VLE rather than text-based. Based on such intelligence, presented simply via an online dashboard, one can tailor one’s teaching, resources and support to these particular circumstances – creating more enjoyable, engaging and impactful learning experiences.
Longer term, increased use of analytics should support you to help learners make more informed decisions, by advising them on the qualifications, careers and progression routes they may want to consider, based on what others like them have done before.
The ethics question
For the many positives offered by learning analytics, there are also legitimate concerns, around ethics, the moral implications of tracking and monitoring learning, and security of learner data.
Such concerns are certainly valid, but I would remind detractors that learning analytics, done for the benefit of learners and not with the intent of misusing or selling-on data, can avoid the pitfalls. As with other college activities, it is bound by the same data protection rules, requiring that only necessary data is collected, that it is held and managed securely, and not shared with third parties.
The code of practice that Jisc created with input from the National Union of Students (NUS) and sector representatives explains organisational responsibility in more detail, to help ensure that all carry out learning analytics appropriately, effectively and within the law.
The argument in favour
Think of it another way: the digital information required for learning analytics is already collected by colleges, but typically within individual siloed administrative computer systems. If that online information the college already holds is not pooled and analysed via learning analytics for the benefit of learners, to aid retention and student success, what does that say about the college’s priorities?
Increasingly, colleges are being asked to report externally via such data; area reviews being one example where affected colleges are having to present on a range of business indicators. Through more frequent demands for data analysis and business intelligence, colleges are being compelled to review their information management policies and systems, and ensure they have the necessary infrastructure and expertise to respond. Why not implement learning analytics at the same time?
To help colleges leverage the learning analytics opportunity, we’re developing a national solution with everything you require to track learning activity and maximise gain, as well as a community and resources to support you in taking it up.
As the sector’s digital expert body, we are uniquely positioned to deliver an overarching learning analytics service at a national scale: we have the technical ability and collaborative nous to develop a joined-up, scalable architecture, supported by a secure learning records warehouse with data spanning across the sectors, and into employment. As a baseline system it can be easily adopted, giving colleges the space to innovate and evolve a solution that best fits their own needs and priorities.