Monday, July 29, 2013

USU's Active Learning Lab brings analytics to learning

About twenty years ago, a mysterious new thing called the Information Superhighway was on the horizon. Everybody knew it was coming, and its impact on education would be huge.

Today, the field of Learning Analytics is approaching, and the discussion sounds almost as mysterious the Internet did in 1993. At a recent conference at Stanford University, participants were invited to do more than join a field—they were encouraged to help build it.

Researchers at Utah State University have accepted that invitation--in fact, one of them co-chaired that conference.  Dr. Taylor Martin was heavily involved in the Learning Analytics Summer Institute at Stanford, and she is the founder and Director of the Active Learning Lab in the Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences department.

“We really are trying to understand learning because there are so many kids who are not achieving their full potential,” said Sarah Brasiel, Associate Director of the Active Learning Lab.

Researchers in the Active Learning Lab are doing something novel by applying some of the same principles of data analysis in education that are already being applied to business. But instead of using data to understand consumer behavior and sell more product, the information gathered will help understand the student’s learning needs and refine the delivery of education.

The studies will be structured so that student identity is separated from the data. The researchers aren’t interested in who is learning—just in methods that produce the best results.

photo of Taylor Martin and Nicole Forsgren Velasquez
Taylor Martin and MIS and Accounting assistant professor Nicole Forsgren
Velasquez speak at the learning analytics conference at Stanford.
Photo courtesy of Ani Aghababyan.
The approach has economic roots. Companies hope for a workforce that leaves school prepared to do a job. Students who invest years and thousands of dollars in an education are hoping for the best possible return.

Some institutions are also taking a data-driven approach to learning, said Stephen Coller of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He spoke at the LASI conference, where he observed that most of the learning analytics discussion has been buried in silos at private institutions. For example, the Minerva Project targets top-tier students and gives them complex tasks that are intended to prepare them for the real world.

But so far, Collar argued that public universities have largely stayed out of the discussion.

Researchers at the Active Learning Lab are working to change that. “Traditionally,” Brasiel said, “learning has been evaluated by a pre- and post-test analysis—but so much more could be gained if data were collected throughout the learning process.”

It would also help if people from different disciplines collaborated more, she said. “The research world has quantitative people, qualitative people and some who use mixed methods, and unfortunately in a lot of departments those people are isolated. They don’t really talk.”

The lab is bringing the different types of researchers together, and has invited data analysis expertise from the ITLS Department and the Huntsman School of Business into the mix. Deborah Fields, Assistant Professor in the ITLS Department, is engaged in research related to 2 of the 6 research projects in the lab. She brings expertise in qualitative research, such as ethnographic methods. Nicole Forsgren Velasquez, Assistant Professor in MIS and Accounting Departments of the School of Business is engaged in research related to 4 of the 6 research projects in the lab. She adds expertise in business intelligence and learning analytics.

What will be the result? It’s a new field that is still defining itself. But the goal is to provide a learning environment that encourages students to not only learn, but also to believe they can succeed.

For more information, contact Taylor Martin and Sarah Brasiel at 210-501-9921.

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