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29 August 2011 / erikduval

What to measure? When does support become enslaving?

Thanks to Beki’s blog, I came across the CHI11 article on Fit4life – which I somehow missed before, a nice illustration of how social media help to discover relevant research…

The article makes some critical remarks that are relevant for our work on learning analytics and research2.0

One important point is that you have to be careful what you measure: an optimal Body Mass Index (BMI) is not the same as perfect health. In fact, this is more problematic even in learning or research, where it seems to me that there is less consensus on what are relevant criteria… Do higher assessment scores always indicate better learning? Are papers with higher numbers of citations always more relevant? Are researchers with a higher h-index always better researchers?

Another important point is to question when persuasion becomes coercion. This is of course highly relevant in a learning context: I guess most of us agree that it is preferable to discuss with students what they can or should do, rather than forcing them to do it. Yet, after I explain to my students why I use twitter in class, I do tell them they have to – or what they do just doesn’t count for the course. And this is just as relevant in research: as a mentor to my team, I try to discuss with my PhD students what they can do for their research – I don’t just order or force them to do it. But if they don’t follow up on what we agree to together, then it won’t be too long before our collaboration is over.

These are really two good points: people and health (and learning and research!) cannot be reduced to numbers; we shouldn’t create Big Brother applications just to become more successful at learning and research.

All true. But I also kept wondering while reading the paper… So what? These issues don’t imply that it is not helpful to have tools that make suggestions? Or to have tools that track behavior and visualize it? To stay in the Fit4Life context: do not nikeplus or runkeeper help people to be active and track their progress on self imposed goals? Maybe it isn’t always clear what to measure? Maybe it is a thin and careful line between coercion and persuasion? Maybe support can be enslaving rather than empowering at some stage – but that doesn’t mean that we should leave people without any support?

This is worth exploring further… Do you have examples of support that turned into coercion? Of (self) tracking applications that cross the Big Brother line? Or maybe you’ve been using or developing such applications that make others uncomfortable? I’d love to hear about your experiences…

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