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Welcome to the Machine

It seems that, for learning designers, learning analytics (mostly using log and performance data gathered from learning management systems) is the new black. I recently attended the annual conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE), where every fourth presentation, it seemed, had something to do with learning analytics. Much of the content of these presentations was on the ‘what’ of learning analytics, i.e. what is technically possible in gathering data about how students are learning? The following question is ‘how’; how do we use this data? Finally we have to address the ‘why’ question; why are we doing this and what is our goal?

Perhaps the most interesting observation was given by Jaclyn Broadbent, talking about the Desire2Learn Intelligent Agent tool: http://ascilite2014.otago.ac.nz/sharing-practice/#78

One of the tasks of these agents is to sent automated, customised emails to students, not only task reminders but also positive feedback on good performance. i.e. the system knows what the students are doing and knows how to send targeted emails that reflect this performance. The ‘why’, of course, is to provide positive feedback in the hope that this will sustain good performance. Apparently, these automated emails are very well received by the students, but hardly any of them realise that these messages are being generated by a machine, rather than being sent personally by the course tutors. Perhaps even more interestingly, the few who did realise that these emails were automated still liked receiving them. Perhaps this is partly because the course tutors created the message templates, so their personalities were still evident in the generated emails. I’d be interested to know if this attitude still prevails as tools like this become more and more common, and the novelty factor wears off. Once every student in higher education is receiving encouraging emails sent by the machine, will they still regard them as positive and valuable? Or will they become the next generation of annoying corporate spam? I guess in the end it depends on the content. As long as we are giving students insights they may not have gained on their own, for example their relative performance compared to their peers on a course, our cyber-motivation may still hold its value.

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