August 14, 2018

Learning analytics, student satisfaction, and student performance at the UK Open University

There is very little correlation between student satisfaction and student performance. Image: Bart Rienties. Click on image to see the video.

Rienties, B. and Toetenel, L. (2016) The impact of learning design on student behaviour, satisfaction and performance: A cross-institutional comparison across 151 modules, Computers in Human Behaviour, Vol. 60, pp.333-341

Li, N. et al. (2017) Online learning experiences of new versus continuing learners: a large-scale replication study, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp.657-672

It’s never too late to learn

It’s been a hectic month with two trips from Vancouver to Ontario and back and one to the UK and back, a total of four keynotes, two panel sessions and two one day consultancies. By the time I got to the end of the month’s travels, I had learned so much that at a conference in Toronto I had to go to my room and lie down  – I just couldn’t take any more!

At my age, it takes time to process all this new information, but I will try to summarise the main points of what I learned in the next three posts.

Learning analytics at the Open University

The Open University, with over 100,000 students and more than 1,000 courses (modules), and most of its teaching online in one form or another, is an ideal context for the application of learning analytics. Fortunately the OU has some of the world leaders in this field. 

At the conference on STEM teaching at the Open University that I attended as the opening keynote, the closing keynote was given by Bart Rienties, Professor of Learning Analytics at the Institute of Educational Technology at the UK Open University. Rienties and his team linked 151 modules (courses) and 111,256 students with students’ behaviour, satisfaction and performance at the Open University UK, using multiple regression models. 

His whole presentation (40 minutes, including questions) can be accessed online, and is well worth viewing, as it provides a clear summary of the results published in the two detailed papers listed above. As always, if you find my summary of results below of interest or challenging, I strongly recommend you view Bart’s video first, then read the two articles in more detail. Here’s what I took away.

There is little correlation between student course evaluations and student performance

This result is a bit of a zinger. The core dependent variable used was academic retention (the number of learners who completed and passed the module relative to the number of learners who registered for each module). As Rientes and Toetenel (p.340) comment, almost as an aside, 

it is remarkable that learner satisfaction and academic retention were not even mildly related to each other….Our findings seem to indicate that students may not always be the best judge of their own learning experience and what helps them in achieving the best outcome.’

The design of the course matters

One of the big challenges in online and blended learning is getting subject matter experts to recognise the importance of what the Open University calls ‘learning design.’ 

Conole (2012, p121) describes learning design as:

a methodology for enabling teachers/designers to make more informed decisions in how they go about designing learning activities and interventions, which is pedagogically informed and makes effective use of appropriate resources and technologies. LD is focussed on ‘what students do’ as part of their learning, rather than the ‘teaching’ which is focussed on the content that will be delivered.

Thus learning design is more than just instructional design.

However, Rienties at al. comment that ‘only a few studies have investigated how educators in practice are actually planning and designing their courses and whether this is then implemented as intended in the design phase.’ 

The OU has done a good job in breaking down some of the elements of learning design. The OU has mapped the elements of learning design in nearly 200 different courses. The elements of this mapping can be seen below (Rientes and Toetenal, 2016, p.335):

Rientes and Toetenel then analysed the correlations between each of these learning design elements against both learner satisfaction and learner performance. What they found is that what OU students liked did not match with learner performance. For instance, students were most satisfied with ‘assimilative’ activities, which are primarily content focused, and disliked communication activities, which are primarily social activities. However, better student retention was most strongly associated with communication activities, and overall, with the quality of the learning design.

Rientes and Toetenel conclude:

although more than 80% of learners were satisfied with their learning experience, learning does not always need to be a nice, pleasant experience. Learning can be hard and difficult at times, and making mistakes, persistence, receiving good feedback and support are important factors for continued learning….

An exclusive focus on learner satisfaction might distract institutions from understanding the impact of LD on learning experiences and academic retention. If our findings are replicated in other contexts, a crucial debate with academics, students and managers needs to develop whether universities should focus on happy students and customers, or whether universities should design learning activities that stretch learners to their maximum abilities and ensuring that they eventually pass the module. Where possible, appropriate communication tasks that align with the learning objectives of the course may seem to be a way forward to enhance academic retention.

Be careful what you measure

As Rientes and Toetenel put it:

Simple LA metrics (e.g., number of clicks, number of downloads) may actually hamper the advancement of LA research. For example, using a longitudinal data analysis of over 120 variables from three different VLE/LMS systems and a range of motivational, emotions and learning styles indicators, Tempelaar et al. (2015) found that most of the 40 proxies of simple” VLE LA metrics provided limited insights into the complexity of learning dynamics over time. On average, these clicking behaviour proxies were only able to explain around 10% of variation in academic performance.

In contrast, learning motivations, emotions (attitudes), and learners’ activities during continuous assessments (behaviour) significantly improved explained variance (up to 50%) and could provide an opportunity for teachers to help at-risk learners at a relatively early stage of their university studies.

My conclusions

Student feedback on the quality of a course is really important but it is more useful as a conversation between students and instructors/designers than as a quantitative ranking of the quality of a course.  In fact using learner satisfaction as a way to rank teaching is highly misleading. Learner satisfaction encompasses a very wide range of factors as well as the teaching of a particular course. It is possible to imagine a highly effective course where teaching in a transmissive or assimilative manner is minimal, but student activities are wide, varied and relevant to the development of significant learning outcomes. Students, at least initially, may not like this because this may be a new experience for them, and because they must take more responsibility for their learning. Thus good communication and explanation of why particular approaches to teaching have been chosen is essential (see my comment to a question on the video).

Perhaps though the biggest limitation of student satisfaction for assessing the quality of the teaching is the often very low response rates from students, limited evaluation questions due to standardization (the same questions irrespective of the nature of the course), and the poor quality of the student responses. This is no way to assess the quality of an individual teacher or a whole institution, yet far too many institutions and governments are building this into their evaluation of teachers/instructors and institutions.

I have been fairly skeptical of learning analytics up to now, because of the tendency to focus more on what is easily measurable (simple metrics) than on what students actually do qualitatively when they are learning. The focus on learning design variables in these studies is refreshing and important but so will be analysis of student learning habits.

Finally, this research provides quantitative evidence of the importance of learning design in online and distance teaching. Good design leads to better learning outcomes. Why then are we not applying this knowledge to the design of all university and college courses, and not just online courses? We need a shift in the power balance between university and college subject experts and learning designers resulting in the latter being treated as at least equals in the teaching process.

References

Conole, G. (2012). Designing for learning in an open world. Dordrecht: Springer

Tempelaar, D. T., Rienties, B., & Giesbers, B. (2015). In search for the most informative data for feedback generation: learning analytics in a data-rich context. Computers in Human Behavior, 47, 157e167. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.038.