Professional learning for learning analytics: what can we learn and adapt in response to current events?

By Linda Corrin, Hazel Jones, Srecko Joksimovic & Cassandra Colvin

As universities around the world scramble to move their offerings online in this time of social distancing, the role of professional learning for teaching staff to enable them to utilise technology in their teaching has never seemed more important. Learning and teaching units are rapidly producing short “How To…” guides and checklists for online learning for staff who may be teaching online for the first time. These tend to focus on key strategies/tools that staff can implement quickly and easily to keep their course running, without overloading the teachers with too much talk of new technologies and pedagogies at this stressful time. Synchronous online training and drop-in sessions are being held to support teachers at a distance, generating greater insight into the issues and needs around online learning than we’ve possibly ever had before. To some extent, these sessions also give teachers the opportunity to experience the online environment as a learner. It’s an interesting time – and one where we should reflect on the way we support and develop our teaching staff, not just for times of crisis, but for ongoing quality in our learning environments.

Professional learning has been a key issue guiding the work of the ASCILITE Learning Analytics SIG recently. In our workshop at the ASCILITE 2019 Conference in Singapore entitled “Professional development for learning analytics: approaches, challenges and opportunities” we explored the need for more attention to be given to how we support teachers in the use of learning analytics. We, and the attendees, felt that this is an area that has tended to be somewhat overlooked by many institutions in the rush to implement the new tools in this rapidly evolving field. At the same time, the challenges around how and when to deliver these professional development activities were acknowledged. We discussed how sometimes the strategic priorities of the institution hampered the design of programs of professional development for teachers. We also considered how institutional policies and the broader regulatory environment in higher education often diverts the focus away from developing capacity to use analytics for pedagogical enhancement towards the collection of high-level metrics around student retention.

Throughout all of these discussions there was strong consensus that professional development for the sole purpose of improving data literacy for analytics is not enough. For learning analytics to have real impact there is a need for greater understanding of the underlying pedagogy and learning design. This creates a necessary foundation from which teachers can start to explore and interpret the data and visualisations that learning management systems and analytics tools provide. Embedding the theoretical influences that inform the way we teach in all our professional development activities is something that is important in building this foundation for teachers. This means ultimately (after we’ve got through this unusual crisis) moving away from the “How to…” simple strategies approach to something more in depth. The benefit of upskilling teachers on not just how, but why we teach as we do will set us up to capitalise on the potential of learning analytics in the future.

In the current situation we find ourselves in, where teachers and students have been thrown into the online space with little warning and preparation, there is a significant role that learning analytics can potentially play in understanding student progress and informing student support. When the dust of this temporary move online has settled, institutions and teachers will look for ways to make sure that students are keeping up with their studies and are prepared for assessments of their learning. Without getting too far into the discussion about the availability and maturity of learning analytics systems in institutions (that’s another whole blog post!), institutions need to enable staff to access and use data in ways that can support students to navigate and learn in this environment that is new to many.

As we settle into this new (and hopefully short-lived) reality of online teaching, we acknowledge that the changes we suggest may be difficult to make on a broad scale right now. However, it does seem that this situation could provide us with an opportunity to start thinking about how we could practically address some of these issues in the future. How can we foster deeper awareness and desiree in our teaching staff to engage on an ongoing professional learning journey? How do we build the formal and informal opportunities for staff to learn about and demonstrate their pedagogical literacy? How do we incorporate the data literacy necessary to engage with learning analytics at key points in this journey? And how can we acknowledge and reward staff for the progress they make in improving the educational experience for students?

Some of these questions have been asked by researchers and practitioners in the professional development literature for many years – but the learning analytics element is something new and important to consider. The current situation we all find ourselves in has prompted us to revisit these ideas and call for the creation of strategies to better prepare our staff (and students) for the ongoing, and sometimes unexpected, changes in higher education. Even if we never see another emergency situation like this (and let’s hope we don’t), there’s a lot we can learn in the coming weeks to help us build the capacity of our teaching staff in the future to provide quality, analytics-informed educational experiences for students.

If you’d like to continue this conversation, please join in the discussion on the ASCILITE Learning Analytics SIG Google Group. It can be found here: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/la-sig

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