Friday, April 12, 2019

Why ‘learning analytics’? Why ‘Learning Record Stores’?

There’s a ton of learning technologists saying their new strategy is data collection in 'learning record stores' and 'learning analytics'. On the whole, this is admirable but the danger is in spending this time and effort without asking ‘Why?’ Everyone’s talking about analytics but few are talking about the actual analysis to show how this will actually help increase the efficacy of the organisation. Some are switched on and know exactly what they want to explore and implement, others are like those that never throw anything out and just fill up their home with stuff – but not sure why. One problem is that people are shifting from first to sixth gear without doing much in-between. The industry has been stuck with SCORM for so long, along with a few pie charts and histograms, that it has not really developed the mindset or skills to make this analytics leap.
Decision making
In the end this is all about decision making. What decisions are you going to make on the back of insights from your data? Storing data off for future use may not be the best use of data. Perhaps the best use of data is dynamically, to create courses, provide feedback, adapt learning, text to speech for podcasts and so on. This is using AI in a precise fashion to solve specific learning problems. The least efficient use of data is storing it in huge pots, boiling it up and hoping that something, as yet undefined, emerges.
Visualisation
This is often mentioned and is necessary but visualisation, in itself, means little. One visualises data for a purpose - in order to make a decision. It is not a tinny in itself and often masquerades as doing something useful, when all it is actually doing is acting as a culture-de sac.
Correlations with business data
Learning departments need to align with the business and business outcomes. Looking for correlations between, say increases in sales and completed training, gives us a powerful rational for future strategies in learning. It need not be just sales. Whatever outcomes the organisation has in its strategy needs to be supported by learning and development. This may lift us out of the constraints of Kirkpatrick, cutting to the quick, which is business or organisational impact. We could at last free learning from the shackles of course delivery and deliver what the business really wants and that’s results.
Business diagnosis
Another model is to harvest data from training in a diagnostic fashion. My friend Chris Brannigan at Caspian Learning does this, using AI. You run sophisticated simulation training, use data analysis to identify insights, then make decisions to change things. To give a real example, they put the employees of a global bank through simulation training on loan risk analysis and found that the problems were not what they had imagined - handing out risky loans. In fact, in certain countries, they were rejecting ‘safe’ loans - being too risk averse. This deep insight into business process and skills weaknesses is invaluable. But you need to run sophisticated training, not clickthrough online learning. It has to expose weaknesses in actual performance.
Improve delivery
One can decide to let the data simply expose weaknesses in the training. This requires a very different mindset, where the whole point is to expose weaknesses in design and delivery. Is it too long? Do people actually remember what they need to know? Does it transfer? Again, much training will be found wanting. To be honest, I am somewhat doubtful about this. Most training is delivered without much in the way of critical analysis, so it is doubtful that this is going to happen any time soon.
Determine how people learn
One could look for learning insights into ‘how’ people learn. I’m even less convinced on this one. Recording what people just ‘do’ is not that revealing if they are clickthrough courses, without much cognitive effort. Just showing them video, animation, text and graphics, no matter how dazzling is almost irrelevant if they have learnt little. This is a classic GIGO problem (Garbage In, Garbage Out). 
Some imagine that insights are buried in there and that they will magically reveal themselves  - think again. If you want insights into how people actually learn, set some time aside and look at the existing research in cognitive science. You’d be far better looking at what the research actually says and redesigning your online learning around that science. Remember that these scientific findings have already gone through a process of controlled studies, with a methodology that statistically attempts to get clean data on specific variables. This is what science does – it’s more than a match for your own harvested data set. 
Data preparation
You may decide to just get good data and make it available to whoever wants to use it, a sort of open data approach to learning. But be careful. Almost all learning data is messy. It contains a ton of stuff that is just ‘messing about’ – window shopping, In addition to the paucity of data from most learning experiences, much of it is odd data structures,odd formats, encrypted, in different databases,old, even useless. Even if you do manage to get a useful clean data set, You have to go through the process of separating ‘Personal’ from ‘Observed’ (what you observe people actually doing), ‘derived’ making deductions from that data, ‘Analysed’ (applying analysis to the data). You may have to keep it ‘Anonymised’ and the privacy issues may be difficult to manage. Remember, you’ll need real expertise to pull this off and that is in very short supply.
To use AI/Machine learning
If you are serious about using AI and machine learning (they are not the same thing), then be prepared for some tough times. It is difficult to get things working from unstructured or structured data and you will need a really good training set, of substantial size, to even train your system. And that is just the start, as the data you will be using in implementation may be very different.
Recommendation engines
This is not easy. If you’ve read all of the above carefully, you’ll see how difficult it is to get a recommendation engine to work, on data that is less than reliable.  You may come to the decision that personal learning plans are actually best constructed using simpler software techniques from spreadsheet levels of data.
Conclusion
The danger is that people get so enamoured with data collection and learning analytics that they forget what they’re actually there to do. Large tech companies use big data, but this is BIG data, not the trivial data sets that learning produces, often on single courses or within single institutions.  In fact, Facebook is far more likely to use A/B testing than any fancy recommendations when deciding what content works best, where a series of quick adaptions could be tested with real users, but few have the bandwidth and skills to make this happen.

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