Phil Richards in chief innovation officer for Jisc

Depending on who you speak to, learning analytics is either a great enabler for transforming further education (FE) delivery, a ‘Big Brother’ abuse of learners’ privacy, or simply ‘not for us’. Jisc's Phil Richards cuts through the myth, exploring the challenges, benefits and opportunities for colleges.

Fundamental to our role as educators is that we support all who pass through our doors to be successful. In FE that means ensuring that learners leave college with the qualifications and skills they need, whether that’s going into higher education or on to employment, getting a pass in English and maths GCSEs resits, or progressing to the next level of an apprenticeship. It’s a broad brief, taking in a variety of qualifications and wide range of learners, from those who’ve just left school to adults returning to education, and offenders.

Under such circumstances, personalised learning and career advice can feel like a far-off dream. But imagine if you could access digital intelligence that would allow you to advise learners on the qualifications, careers and progression routes available to them, so that they are informed to plan their route, based on what others like them had done before? Or knowing where, when and how an individual prefers to study, so that you can provide them with tailored resources and support.

The fast-emerging field of learning analytics offers such an opportunity, to transform the way we deliver for learners.

Every time a learner interacts with their college – having their name taken on a register in class, logging onto the virtual learning environment (VLE), or checking out a book in the library – they leave behind a unique digital footprint.

By identifying patterns in data you can see how well an individual is performing against their potential, or whether they might be at risk. If someone hasn’t accessed online resources for a period or has missed the last couple of assignments, you may choose to stage an intervention, such as offering more support in certain areas where they’ve fallen behind, to prevent them from failing or even dropping out altogether.

It can also offer insights into preferred individual learning strategies for example, if an individual prefers to go to the library to study in the evening, or engages more with video resources on the VLE rather than text. Using this knowledge you can tailor your teaching and support accordingly. This should make learning more enjoyable, engaging and impactful, and ultimately result in better outcomes.

Of course, as with everything, learning analytics is not without its issues. Many of the headlines to date have focused on ethics; whether the act of tracking and monitoring learners through their data is too much like ‘Big Brother’; or if it will open up opportunities for misuse.

I do understand – and empathise – with such concerns. However, this is far from the intention.

Learning analytics is done for learners. It is bound by the same data protection rules that apply to all college activities, in terms of keeping data secure, not collecting any more than is necessary, not sharing it with third parties, and most importantly obtaining informed consent for its use. There is also a code of practice – created by Jisc and with input from the NUS and sector representatives – to help ensure that all organisations are aware of their responsibilities to carry out learning analytics appropriately, effectively and within the law.

I would argue that the bigger concern would be for a college to have this information at its disposal but use it only for internal administrative convenience, not for the wider benefit of learners; if we agree that colleges have a duty to learners in supporting them to realise their potential, and mitigate the risk of non-completion, then we must embrace the role of learning analytics as key to fostering this success.

More and more frequently colleges are being asked to report via data – for example, in the area reviews, affected colleges have had to present on a wide range of business indicators. So why not use this as an opportunity to get the information management policies and systems in place that enable more detailed data analysis and business intelligence, and at the same time leverage them for learning analytics?

In order that all colleges can make the most of learning analytics, Jisc is developing a national solution, including an app for students to monitor their own learning activity, a dashboard, and a community and resources to provide ongoing support.

Jisc is uniquely positioned to deliver such a service at national scale: as the digital body for further and higher education in the UK, we have the expertise, ability and data to span across the sectors, and into employment, all housed in a secure learning records warehouse. It also means that colleges don’t have to create their own baseline learning analytics system themselves, giving them space to innovate in a secure environment.

I’d urge colleges to register their interest and make the most of this opportunity. Visit analyticsjiscinvolve.org or speak to your account manager for more information, and sign up via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

Phil Richards is chief innovation officer for Jisc, the UK higher, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions. 

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