I was very happy to see today’s Chronicle article about Candace Thille’s take on analytics in higher education (As Big-Data Companies Come to Teaching, a Pioneer Issues a Warning). She is definitely a pioneer in the space, and given that, I’d like to chime in from my seat behind the driver in the back of the covered wagon. First, I need to point out that while I haven’t met Candace first hand, she is linked to the development of my analytics career. In 2013, I was on a higher ed analytics panel at a conference in Las Vegas. Candace was on the panel before me and Larry Summers was the keynote after me. Looking through the time machine lens, it was interesting. Summers was two years removed from his role in “The Social Network”…made for some good laughs at the keynote. Candace was on a panel with Andrew Ng from Coursera, and the panel description started off with this gem: “MOOC madness is here!”. Ahhh…2013…we hardly knew ye.
Now, back to the topic at hand. In the article, Candace talks about her warnings towards the higher ed analytics space. While I detect a bit of sensationalism in the article (“Ms. Thille has begun to have darker thoughts about an industry she helped spark”), I think it’s a great piece to keep the conversation and constructive criticism alive. Her core thesis is that rapid commercialization is the wrong way to foster innovation in the analytics space and that higher ed is making a mistake by letting companies take the lead in shaping the market. I’d like to approach each of her points separately and add my commentary:
Later in the article, Norman Bier from CMU talks about the need for openness and transparency with analytics and adaptive learning. The author then states, “But the trend is going in the other direction. More and more colleges are turning to the commercial market for their adaptive-learning products.” There’s an overt assumption that “commercial” is antithetical to “open.” I get it, but I don’t think it’s a simple dichotomy. There’s a lot of effort and many resources that go into these tools. They’re difficult to do the right way. As I look through my lens of ed tech history, I see some institution-driven initiatives that worked, some that didn’t, and some where the jury is still out (here are some names that fall into one of these buckets—Sakai, LTI, Caliper, Moodle, OAAI, Unizin, and a host of other names/acronyms that you may not have heard of). My point is that some things require the resources and coordination that an open or community-sourced effort just can’t do.
To summarize, I don’t like the “us vs. them” dichotomy. I think it’s patently obvious that there’s a need for a partnership. Learning technology companies can’t develop closed tools in a vacuum, and institutions don’t have the resources/continuity to bring an effective tool to market (IMHO). The article does a good job of showing both sides. There are comments from ALEKS and input from the always prescient George Siemens. However, the closing quote from Candace fuels the us vs. them flames:
“To commodify it at this point in time, when we’re still doing very active research in it, almost assures that we’ll get less innovative, suboptimal products.”
I disagree. If Goldie Blumenstyk talked to me for this article, I’d close with something like this:
“Learning analytics is still a developing field. Joint exploration between the professors who are in the field and the commercial researchers who have the data and resources will help evolve the state of the market for all.”
If you disagree with me, go to an ELI or LAK conference and listen to some of the work that’s being presented and discussed by individuals…regardless of whether their name tag has a .edu or .com on it.