ELI 2012, Day 1

It’s been a whirlwind day, and I’ve been more or less up since 3.30a EST this morning, so I won’t guarantee lucidity or accuracy. But that just means that I am being unafraid about getting into the messy business of learning, to paraphrase Gardner Campbell.

Speaking of Gardner, I finally had a chance to see the man live and direct in a panel debate on learning analytics. I should rather say Learning Analytics, since part of what came out of the panel was a proper problematization of the notion of analytics. Whose analytics? What analytics? What is being measured? What is being ignored, hidden, obscured? The other members of the panel were Randall Bass of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, John Campbell of Purdue, and John Fritz of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County.

At times, the fissures between those we could broadbrush as pro-analytics (J. Campbell, Fritz) and anti-analytics (Bass, G. Campbell) loomed large. Campbell (G.) and Bass spoke of long timeframes and patience, Fritz and Campbell (J.) spoke of what we can do now and of timeframes less than 5 years. Bass used a coinage of “slow analytics”, explicitly connecting with the Slow Food movement. Campbell (G.) began with comments about his background with Milton, Bass discussed his 20 years of engagement with educational research and noted his PhD; Campbell (J.) and Fritz didn’t refer to their backgrounds at all and spoke of the need to address issues of scale.

Always present, though, was the clear interest of all participants of addressing the real or perceived struggles of higher education in the United States. What I missed, perhaps, was some of the ideas I read in the daily tweets of Stephen Krashen and those he retweets, such as Susan Ohanian and Diane Ravitch. These ideas are along the lines of: Is our educational system truly broken, or is it doing what we implicitly want? Is it the teachers’ faults? Can the teacher provide anything beyond a bandage given the structural inequalities in this country? Some of this was brought out in Adrian Sannier’s keynote earlier in the day, as he metaphorized the history of American education as a sieve, though which we let pass those who would become the manual laborers and in which we saved those who would become captains of industry (or at least middle management).

With this in mind, I’ll speculate that perhaps we are possibly painting too simplistic a picture. My emotional and instinctive sympathies are with Gardner Campbell and Randy Bass’s view of analytics as intentionally blinkering ourselves and congratulating ourselves when we move straight ahead. However, perhaps they are useful tools to start plugging the sieve. Perhaps they are a small start to get administrators and policymakers to start looking at those who are not being served by our educational system, whether higher or lower. They are, even in that case, though, dangerously powerful tools. Ignoring analytics in the service of flattening opportunity in learning, I’m concerned, as Gardner Campbell spoke about today, that the half a loaf of analytics-driven goals is not better than none at all. Are we serving the underserved if we hand them a parchment, pat them on the head, and outsource their job anyway? Are we serving the already-served if we make college about “completion rates” and not about learning? Are we just deferring from primary to secondary the proper educating of our population?

I’m beginning to enjoy the sound of my own righteous indignation, so I’ll end. If you can, though, watch at least the first 30–45 minutes or so of the panel session. (The player seems to require Microsoft Silverlight, and I had to restart my Firefox 10 to get it to play.) Further, if you are reading this before, say, 17 February 2012, you can see some of the conference stream by looking for #eli2012 and variants of same (e.g. the panel session was #eli12_fs02 or #eli2012_fs02) on Twitter.