Learning Analytics and the Hands of Evil

Who’s Afraid of the Power

(cc) Flickr Photo by Emersunn

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.”  

The power is in ANALYTICAL LEARNING.

 So who’s afraid of the power?

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.