David Warlick Ryann Warlick Martin Warlick
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Learning Analytics and the Hands of Evil

Who’s Afraid of the Power

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I just learned about “learning analytics” from Audry Waters, a blogger/journalist whom I am reading with increasing regularity. Reporting on the recent Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference in Vancouver, Waters shared a phrase that was used often at the conference, “data exhaust.”

The first time I heard digital data described as exhaust, was by Dave Sifry, the founder of the blog search engine, Technorati.  He said something to the effect of, “The blogosphere is the exhaust of the human attention stream.”  This was pre-Twitter and pre-Facebook, but it was a notion that intrigued me.  I continue to use it in some of my presentations – that we, through our varied and seemingly unceasing networked interactions, are creating an enormous and at least partly useful reservoir of content.  

But I wouldn’t call what we might do with that reservoir, “Learning Analytics.”

What appears to be coming from the conversation around this “new discipline,” as it is apparently called, has more to do with learning management than it does with learning empowerment – and that, in the right context, is not wholly unappealing to me.  The ability to collect the artifacts of ones own digital trails, visualize and analyze what we’ve learned, how we learned it, and what we’ve learned to do with it might represent a personal enticement to broaden, enrich, and more purposefully direct our own digital trails.

Yet, like with so many things, we must ask ourselves, “What might happen if this wondrous new tool were to fall into the hands of evil?”  

A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook a reference to ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council.  They craft legislation of a specific philosophical leaning and get legislators elected who will pass such legislation under the guise of knee-jerk social issues, patriotic symbolism, and apple pie.

ALEC, which was formed in 1973, operated largely unnoticed until it was revealed that they had penned Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, resulting in George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of an innocent teenager, Trayvon Martin, simply because Zimmerman “felt threatened.”

ALEC’s aim reaches far beyond hoodied youngsters and they appear to have a special interest in education.  According to a May 1 Diane Ravitch article in Education Week, the recent..

..explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights..

..is the work of ALEC. There are so many other examples of short-sighted attacks on public education and the intellectual freedom of teachers (see “Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools?“) that I have grown fearful for our future and more than a little resentful that the learner-empowering tools that I have promoted for 30 years seem to be enabling those who would rather use them to “manage learning.”

When I originally sat down to write this blog post, I had in mind a list of reasons why marketplace education is so potentially destructive.  However, after including so many words into this writing already, I have come to believe that the issue is simple.  Learning, like breathing, is human.  It’s what we do and it is what has made us what we are today.  We breath, we observe, we think, and we learn.

Learning can’t be installed in assembly line fashion, with quality control at the end of each season.  It must be nurtured by a compassionate society and by caring individuals.   

Privatizing public education would be as inhuman as it would be to sell the air – though there are some (ALEC Education Taskforce July 2011) who might like to.

As for Learning Analytics?  It fascinates me, because I believe that there are potent skills we might develop and share, for learning important lessons from the digital trails of a billion people.  

But the power is not in “learning analytics.”  


 So who’s afraid of the power?


  • http://about.me/kjarrett Kevin Jarrett (@kjarrett)

    Hi David,

    Who’s afraid of the power?

    Those who currently hold it. They want more, and want to prevent others from encroaching on theirs. It’s the way things have been since the dawn of civilization.

    However, things sure seem to be taking a turn for the worse. You mention ALEC above … well, come to New Jersey and see what ALEC can do in a state legislature – this Newark Star Ledger investigative report is pretty compelling:

    Some of Christie’s biggest bills match model legislation from D.C. group called ALEC

    I fear for the future of education, too.


  • http://www.odysen.com Matt

    “Learning can’t be installed in assembly line fashion, with quality control at the end of each season. It must be nurtured by a compassionate society and by caring individuals.”

    Sure it can, people, anything alive, would learn soon enough how to break it, or “fix it”, once that is, they’re aware of it. It’s our nature to evolve, like it or not, and doing something new is evolving from repetition, just the way it goes.

    But yeah, I sympathize with your points but what can you besides be aware, keep learning somehow and sharing with others, so thanks for that, have to start somewhere..

  • Jimmy Gause

    I’m ready for the challenge, but the question really “Is society ready for the change?” I say most educators are but our government body must put our schools in position to make the adjustments also. Analytical Learning is the way for our education system to move for the 21st century learners. I feel there should be more invovlement from a community that needs more education for new learners.

  • Hector Garcia

    A real leader that has power is not afraid that other people can decide. If a leader is afraid, then he is not a real leader.
    Some people tend to give opinions on things that they don’t even know. Teachers are criticized for students’ achievement. When a teacher is able to make his/her students succeed, he/she will be questioned. In a any other profession, those individuals are not questioned. For example, a lawyer has to know the laws to win a case. If the lawyer doesn’t win, they don’t make a big deal because it had not enough evidence or the client was guilty. But if a child is not ready to be promoted to the next grade level, the teacher is questioned on what he/she did or din not.
    All of our representatives had to go to school and they are who they are because of a caring teacher. They won’t understand the teaching profession, until, they experience it. They attack that profession for many reasons. One of them is ignorance, they don’t know all the sacrifices a teacher does to make a child succeed. Who wants to share more reasons?

  • http://www.etuitionup.com Online Tutoring Software

    This is a great post on learning analytic and gives a thought about society.This is also true that you can’t make world perfect only by your efforts.

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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Cultivating Your Personal Learning Network
2nd Edition (2012)

Redefining Literacy 2.0 (2008)
Classroom Blogging
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Raw Materials for the Mind

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