© Satorys, 2011

Fain, P. (2012) Big data’s arrival, Inside Higher Education, February 1

Sorry for the one week gap in posting, but I’ve been working on a report on the future of learning management systems which was due last weekend. I’m now catching up on some of the stuff that came in last week.

This is an interesting report on a significant subject: taking data from a very large number of online courses and aggregating them to see if they can identify significant factors that influence student performance, then using the results to modify or change practice.

Under the auspices of a WCET managed project, six institutions with major online programs have aggregated their data, covering more than 600,000 online students or more than 3 million student course records.

One of the first findings is that ‘at-risk students do better if they ease into online education with a small number of courses, which flies in the face of widely-held belief in the benefits of full student immersion.’

Well, I have to say that the first part of the statement didn’t surprise me, but the second part did. Students who take online courses tend to be working part-time, tend to be older and with families, and hence will do better if they don’t take a full course load online, especially in their first year. Furthermore, students need time to adjust to online learning. Working more independently without regular face-to-face contact with an instructor takes time to get used to. Throwing such students into a full course load entirely online is asking for trouble. It doesn’t need 3 million student records to confirm a fact that has been known for some time. There is a great deal of research for instance on factors associated with non-completion or drop-out in distance education.

Unfortunately though most administrators and instructors don’t read the research, and the US system penalises students financially if they don’t take a full course load. So if ‘big data’ can emphasise something that is already well known but is not acted upon, and lead to action where previous knowledge was ignored, it may be worthwhile.

However, it does illustrate the point that ‘big data’ is only useful if it tells us not only something we didn’t know already, but answers questions that we can do something about. In other words, big data is only valuable if we ask important questions and it can answer those questions. This means collecting data in such a way that it will answer our questions. Going backwards from data collected for other purposes to questions it might answer is a dangerous practice, because you only see what you want to see.

This is not to criticize data analytics, but merely to ask that we deal with this issue, as with all other issues in online learning, thoughtfully, and not just throw large amounts of data at  a problem then jump to conclusions without cross-checking it with other sources, such as research/experience from practitioners. In the meantime, let’s give big data a chance and see what it comes up with.


  1. Hi Tony ..
    As an asynchronous online K12 educator I find the data driven policies clash with the reality of online students. SOME of my students struggle or find the f2f too slow. Sometimes the policy of taking a full course load to so the school qualifies for fte funding is just an added stress. Some students just want to focus on one thing at a time. They don’t want to multitask and switch subjects. We sometimes ask kids to do things under circumstances where most adults would take a medical leave. They are pursuing online education because their learning needs are not met in face-to-face. Sometimes data driven policies fail to personalize the learning environment so a student can be more successful, particularly if the big data focused on a different definitions of success. (ie. percentile gains as opposed to passing rates and comparable averages of DL to f2f). If online learning or its hybrids are to be ‘revolutionary’ then new tools will need to be developed to measure this new indicators of ‘success’. The logic for FTE is antiquated. Even if a child focuses on one course, WE (the student and I) still put in the same amount of time in a course. It isn’t the number of months but it is the number of hours and some kids need more time and some need less.

    Unfortunately, the alternative currently under the microscope is block funding and funding based on course completion. That creates another number driven system where online class sizes will be based on completion rates and not allow for ballooning enrollments and the need to have more teachers. The result will be courses that are designed for factory models with scrom and self-marking type lower level thinking questions that allow online teachers to have a manageable work load (marking, communication, phone calls, feedback, and perhaps, course development). In BC, there is no class size limit for online learning but we have year round enrollment (not cohort) and funding snapshots. Often, larger class sizes are rationalized because the students are not active. My research in my Masters suggested that building relationships is key for students’ success and ironically, the data drives does not allow for that time or that measure. The data driven policies for DL may adversely affect a system that for some students are the only viable alternative.

    It is late.. I shouldn’t rant at this hour..

    • Thanks for a great post, Miksa – please DO rant like this!

      I don’t normally cover k-12 online learning, but I’ve noted some disturbing developments recently in online learning in BC schools, such as classroom teaching notes being used as the basis for an online course and when this fails, hiring a designer to make it work in an online environment, and overloading online classes with too many students for an instructor to manage comfortably. What started as a drive to improve access for students and as an alternative to classroom teaching seems to have morphed into a money-saving initiative by the Ministry. However, I’m not close enough to the action to know whether or not this is the reality.

      In the meantime, I fully agree with you that the secret of success in online learning is relationship building with and between the students, and that then does become a numbers game.


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