Monday, May 4, 2015

Learning Analytics: Applying Big Data to Education

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Big business has relied on big data analytics for several years now for a variety of purposes - perhaps the most impactful to business is rapid turnaround on marketing programs but consumers will be more familiar with the Amazon and Netflix recommendation engines that suggest other products to view based on past customers' viewing and purchasing patterns.

That same technology is making its way into education in the form of "Learning Analytics" as described in the infographic from Open Colleges at right. The New Media Consortium looks to developing and future trends in technology use and adoption in education. In their paper titled "The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition" the group identified Learning Analytics as a rapidly developing technology in the "One year or less" category for time to adoption. 

Much like other applications of big data, Learning Analytics offers the promise of "individualized education." Through the use of visualization and dashboard tools, administrators and educators will have access to an unprecedented amount of information about individual students, student trends, classes as a whole, etc. They will be able to compare individual behaviors (time spent on education and class related sites, frequency of checking message boards, etc.) with overall behavioral trends to identify students at risk for bad grades or dropping out as well as be able to make recommendations based on trends displayed by high achievers, as one example.  

The NMC report mentions several university programs already in place to evaluate the benefits of big data use in education. Eastern Connecticut State University began a five-year initiative to improve the success of low-income, minority, and first generation students using big data analytics and the University of Wisconsin began a program in 2013 to match behavior patterns to students with low grades. Stanford University is analyzing large datasets generated from online learning resources to build an educational dashboard and in 2013 they received a $200,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support Stanford's Learning Analytics Summer Institute to provide training to researchers.

In engineering (yes, even software engineering!) you often hear phrases like "You can't improve what you don't measure." However I would also claim that the raw data itself - the measurement - does no good without the analysis to convert the data into information and the information to knowledge. Emerging big data analytics applications like Learning Analytics are providing us with the analysis tools to make that conversion.


Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Pinantoan, A. (2012). Learning analytics 101 [Infographic]. Retrieved from

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