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How Learning Analytics Can Empower Teachers and Encourage Critical Thought

Posted in Teacher Tools on May 30, 2012 by

When we talk about the ongoing revolution in education, we tend to focus on students: how their experience is changing, how to personalize learning, how to make the classroom a more engaging and effective place. Sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to another large group (7 million people in the US alone) who think about these issues every day: teachers.

Last March, Metlife released the Survey of the American Teacher, which has been published since 1984. The study was conducted in over 1000 schools across the US, and provides an interesting snapshot on teachers’ perceptions of their own role in the American education ecosystem.

The conclusion seems clear: teachers’ perception of the quality of their jobs has been decreasing in the last few years.


This is a complex issue; no one party is to blame. Some of the time trends are uncertain (for example, in 2006, 26% of teachers said they were likely to leave the profession). The shadow of the current economic environment may have had an effect on teachers’ responses, or perhaps changes in the education world are eroding their confidence. Whatever the reasons, our society is not succeeding in creating an environment in which all teachers feel satisfied, valued, and secure in their jobs.

Teachers are also feeling more pessimistic about student engagement, a perception associated with budget cuts. Many teachers report that education resources and facilities have declined in quality. Seventy-seven percent of teachers feel they are being treated as professionals by their community — a fairly high percentage, but one that has declined over the years. This measurement has historically been closely correlated with teachers’ perceptions of job security and satisfaction, which have also decreased.

As other successful educational systems in the world (such as Finland) have shown, teachers’ perceptions of their own roles and their passion about their profession has a huge influence on students’ educational outcomes. And it’s not about money. A majority of teachers feel they are being paid fairly and feel engaged in their communities.

As the educational landscape changes, so will teachers’ needs and job responsibilities. We need to ensure that teachers have the tools they need to best serve students in this new educational environment.

The contribution of educational technology: learning analytics

Our society as whole, and policymakers in particular, should be paying close attention to these results. But what can we, the educational technology community, do to put teachers back in a leading role in this educational revolution? One of the innovations in education I’m most excited about is the field of learning analytics.

The 2012 Horizon Report defines learning analytics as “the interpretation of a wide range of data produced by and gathered on behalf of students in order to assess academic progress, predict future performance and spot potential issues. […] The goal of learning analytics is to enable teachers and schools to tailor educational opportunities to each student’s level of need and ability in close-to-real time.”

If students are to change and adapt to a new way of learning (in consonance with the way they live, as Ken recently wrote), we need teachers to be ahead of that change. What we are seeing now is a revolution in the wealth of information we’re gathering about each student.

With the right analytical tools, teachers will have a much more accurate picture of where each student stands in relation to her individual needs, capacities, and interests, as well as within her group of peers. This is what learning analytics is about: insight and context. It is about teachers gaining access to new, meaningful information about their students’ progress.

At the same time, learning analytics should not be seen as taking over the teaching experience. Analytical tools are unlikely to capture subtler aspects of the benefits of a classroom experience, such as motivation, discovering new interests, or engaging with a community. Learning analytics will serve a specific function for teachers, helping them detect students’ needs more quickly so that they can make informed decisions on how to most effectively serve them.

Some will argue that it’s not fair to say that learning analytics are a true innovation. At some level, they’re right. Teachers and administrators have been keeping track of their students’ educational outcomes and behavior for a very long time: attendance records, grades, observations, scores, etc. This is the reason tests exist: to provide a measure of students’ knowledge and progress. However, over the years, tests have come to serve a purpose they were never meant to: they’ve become the object of learning, rather than the method by which to assess it.

Now, with the amount of data gathered per student increasing by several orders of magnitude, analytical tools are likely to gain a much more important role in the classroom. These more powerful analytics will lessen the burden on tests to assess learning, and in doing so, allow critical thinking and knowledge gain to become the primary goals of education once again.

In this new landscape, teachers might be relied on less to transmit knowledge. Instead, they will likely regain a role of a more Socratic nature: guidance through knowledge. The teacher will be responsible for helping to produce well-rounded, inquisitive, and thoughtful citizens, rather than fact receptacles. Teaching will become much more about developing critical thinking tools and designing collaborative interactions and creative environments, and less about a simple transmission of content.

As analytical tools develop and are adopted, it is inevitable that issues will arise. What’s the privacy policy? Who should have access to what? Is it possible for an instructor to have too much information? Are there any dangers that will distort the goals of teaching? Of learning?

In a certain light, learning analytics could do for education what business intelligence is doing for business. Today, it seems unthinkable to run a business without these tools. But if we’re not talking products, but citizens, the need to make this an effective and ethical transition in every step is even more dramatic. The goal of the adoption of learning analytics should be to escape the “one-size-fits-all” framework and replace it with a much more personalized view of each individual. In this way, teachers will be able to develop a climate of critical awareness, creativity, and collaboration.