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How Are You Measuring Learner Performance This Term?

Beware: If you plan to use an open-source LMS, you may be flying blind.

With most postsecondary institutions moving to a fully online learning model for the new term, colleges and universities across North America will face many new challenges. Faculty must be made comfortable with remote instruction. Course content built for traditional classroom delivery needs to be converted for online learning. And learners who normally would be on campus will be working remotely and online—many for the first time.

Over the past decade, learning analytics have become a focal point for attention within the postsecondary world. It is becoming increasingly well understood that learning analytics help instructors better understand learning behaviors, boost learning effectiveness, and intervene quickly when a learner is struggling. Students with access to learning analytics are able to measure their performance against their own and faculty expectations, and the performance of their peers. Learning analytics are also invaluable to institutions, allowing them to capture trends and then internally and externally report on such key metrics as learners’ motivation levels, learning outcomes, learners’ persistence, and learners’ retention and completion rates.

The shift to fully online learning precipitated by the pandemic has exposed new challenges for higher ed. Online learning requires an extraordinary level of learner self-discipline to be successful. For instance, a recent Statistics Canada crowdsourcing study completed by over 100,000 postsecondary students from April 19 to May 1, 2020, provides insight on how their academic life was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all participants had some (17%) or all (75%) of their courses moved online. A small percentage had none of their courses moved online (2%) or were not taking courses (e.g., working on a thesis, work placement, 6%).

The study reveals that for many students the transition to online learning was a hard one. While it provided them with an opportunity to complete their academic year, many students were unfamiliar with online learning models and felt ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Of those students who moved fully online, 7% reported they were unable to complete some or all these courses. This number also varied by field of study, ranging from 5% for participants studying engineering and engineering technology to 13% for participants studying a trade.

Students in the U.S. also feel shortchanged by the shift online. College students say the online instruction they’re getting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is not the education for which they paid. Some students plan to withhold tuition payments; others are demanding partial tuition refunds.[1]

With learning shifting fully online for the fall 2020 term, learning analytics will play a key role in helping colleges and universities understand student sentiment and engagement and adjust their educational delivery models and pedagogy accordingly. However, for colleges and universities that currently rely on an online learning management system (LMS), those analytics may be quite hard to get. There are a few obstacles institutions should be aware of.

  1. Even the most popular open-source LMS systems have clunky, outdated interfaces and are not well-suited to mobile learning. Users must install a specific look-and-feel template and the college is responsible for adapting the system to mobile standards. Tech-savvy learners today want and expect anywhere, anytime learning from their mobile devices. So they may be reluctant towards (or reject outright) their learning management platform. This will only compound their dissatisfaction with the current (and necessary) online learning delivery model.
  2. Typically, open-source learning platforms offer only limited reporting and analytics for instructors and administrator staff. There is no classroom data—nor are there any data visualization tools—for faculty, administration, and learners to access. Data is there for the mining, but insights will need to be pulled from the information gathered by business analyses. This takes time, effort, and skill to compile, so the results will not be available to institutions in real time.

As we speed toward the start of a new academic term, we know the expectations for online learning will be even higher. Learners, faculty, and parents are looking to institutions to address the problems with online learning that emerged during the spring 2020 term. Learning analytics can provide colleges and universities with the critical insights they need to monitor learning and refine learning delivery in real time. Without easy access to these critical learning metrics, institutions are asking their faculty, learners, and staff to make the biggest shift of their learning careers while essentially flying blind.

[1]https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/13/students-say-online-classes-arent-what-they-paid

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