Progress Report: NGLC Learning Analytics Projects

min read

Think of learning analytics as the warning lights of online learning’s dashboard – that gleaming assemblage of dials and icons that alerts a driver at once if gas in the tank is running low, a door is open, or the cooling system isn’t working. Learning analytics makes it possible for faculty members, student support professionals, and students themselves to notice as soon as problems arise, before those problems lead to the student’s failure in or departure from a class – when there’s still time to take action to remedy the situation. And while you’re thinking about learning analytics and the opportunities it affords institutions to identify students at risk and to intervene, we invite you to take some of your own time to learn about what NGLC’s grantees in this area have accomplished. Today we release a report focused on this challenge area, one of four from the very first grant opportunity that our initiative issued. It’s titled Building Blocks for College Completion: Learning Analytics.

In that first request for proposals, in fall 2010, we received more than 80 proposals for projects that would address the scaling of learning analytics projects that had shown promise in early use on a single campus. Just six of the proposals were selected to receive funding. With their work now complete, we are pleased to share lessons from the design and implementation phases of these projects in this newly published report.

For the time-challenged, it opens with a section of key takeaways, providing an executive summary of the major findings included within it. We then incorporate a short introduction to learning analytics, a process that begins with the collection of data from the technology systems with which online students interact but goes beyond it, translating the data into actionable information and using it in strategies to improve student performance and, ultimately, their outcomes. We explore those areas where grantees invested most of their efforts: developing and refining the tools for learning analytics, engaging faculty and staff in their use, and reaching out to students. Much of the development work was technical in nature; grantees needed to consider compatibility, identification, and availability of data elements from institution to institution when designing their tools. To hint at  the complexity of this work, the report includes a table of data elements from the Marist College project’s Predictive Model for Student Success.

With the terrain of key areas of work set forth, we turn to the challenges grantees faced when scaling their innovations to broader use on new campuses and with larger populations. These challenges included the compatibility of technologies, both between hardware and software and between the systems used on one campus and those used on another. The distinctive culture of each institution, too, presented challenges to the adoption of learning analytics: variables affecting adoption included flexibility of role definitions for faculty and also for staff, relative capacity of the institutional research office, differing policies regarding data sharing and privacy of student records, and engagement of staff at both senior and practitioner levels.   

The report arrives at some insights to help advance the field, insights potentially applicable beyond the specific challenge area of learning analytics. For instance, one of the report’s conclusions is that programs in this area will be likeliest to succeed if stakeholders across the institution are able to work in concert and that investing in “expertise, process, and policies” should precede purchasing new tools or collecting new data.  The report also recommends that those considering a learning analytics project should review the literature thoroughly and that, as noted above, additional work is urgently needed on developing and adopting common data standards across the higher education ecosystem, both for the coding of data definitions and for the interchange of data among institutions using those standards. We conclude with a set of provocative primer questions to guide further investigation and a set of key resources, both on the general background of learning analytics and on each specific project for those interested in learning more about their designs and implementations.

Whether your institution has already embarked on efforts to use learning analytics to improve student success or is just beginning to plan its work, this new report offers a succinct way to learn from NGLC’s innovators and their efforts to scale their innovations. We encourage you to benefit from what the “Building Blocks” learning analytics grantees have accomplished and learned in carrying out their projects.

Download the report