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24 October 2013 / erikduval

Augmentation, not Replacement…

At the EADTU conference in wonderful Paris, France, MOOC’s are of course the dominant topic. And yes, of course, this crowd of “Distance Teaching Universities” feels a bit uncomfortable about newcomers that, not hindered by any knowledge of the domain, suddenly attract the press attention and the students, as well as the euros and dollars, in what was for decades their turf…

So, I was very happy to try and do a ‘mooc free’ talk, on learning analytics. The official title of my talk was “The Transformation of Higher Education and the role of Learning Analytics” – not a title I could have come up with. Although that title did include the proper amount of grandeur for a talk at the Sorbonne, it made me a bit uncomfortable, as I don’t know how to transform Higher Education. If I’ve learned anything over the past 2 decades, it is that Higher Education is remarkably resilient to any kind of deep change…

In my talk, I focused a bit on what I consider to be the two main streams of activities in learning analytics:

  • educational data mining tries to build algorithms that can deduce meaning from data;
  • visual analytics tries to build applications that help people to understand the data.

Our work is very much in the second stream. Not because I would think that data mining techniques will not work. In fact, I think they will work – and are already beginning to work quite well. And I do acknowledge that they could help to address scalability of education – an issue that Diana Laurillard focused on in her talk: if we can automate teachers, then at least we can scale teaching and meet the increasing demand.

However, I personally put myself much more in the tradition of Doug Engelbart, and try to focus on ‘augmenting the human intellect’, rather than replacing it. With my team, we try to build tools and technologies that help teachers and students to look at the traces of their own activities (and those of their peers) in order to steer their efforts in a more informed way. The end result should be teachers and students that become better in and more confident about making their own decisions. I think that is what we need, not students who are conditioned to follow the directions from a piece of software…


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