Innovation Analyst

11 April 2017

I met Dr. Damian Bebell at the 2017 SGIS Annual Conference in Zurich. We started our conversation by discussing the importance of a school’s mission statement, a theme that Damian has thoroughly explored, then quickly moved into his current area of expertise and interest – the growing field of ‘learning analytics’. Since the question is also a matter of burning interest for IIL, I was more than happy to interview a researcher with such experience on this topic.

Assistant Research Professor at Boston College, Damian regularly consults for Apple Education, and has launched the International Research Collaborative that gathers more than twenty international schools with one-to-one programmes, polling them with similar questions regarding the uses of technology in school.

I began by asking Damian about his definition of learning analytics. Beyond the classical association of data and teaching strategies, Damian underlined that learning analytics has a simpler definition as ‘the process of using data to be reflective’ – something that [good] teachers do very informally and naturally in the course of their work.

The use of learning analytics provides an opportunity to think about what kinds of data can be used to serve students, whether collected actively or through existing systems. One can think of the example of industry, where companies like Amazon use data to better serve their customers: the outcome of learning however is not financial and it is important that schools define the objectives they want to achieve by leveraging the understanding of the learning process.

The conversation then moved on to the projects in which learning analytics are currently making a difference. Damian mentioned the pioneering role of MOOCs, a field which he has personally explored in the framework of a project that looked at an edX MOOC and was supported by the Gates Foundation. Nowadays, Damian is particularly focused on the International Research Collaborative – he was actually in Zurich to share some of the latest data and results from the IRC.

This quick chronological review led Damian to emphasise that the use of data (not to mention big data) in reflection about education is only in its infancy. He likes to remind us that data is agnostic and needs to resonate in the concrete concerns of educators, who in return must learn to articulate their questions to data specialists.

One serious barrier lies in the fact that we do not yet have at our availability a system specifically designed to collect such data. Schools with one-to-one projects can be considered to be in a better position for thinking about changes in education and exploring assumptions about technology, yet it would be fair to say that today’s technology does not allow for the collection of data for residential teaching on a scale equivalent to that which has been delivered in the context of MOOCS.

However, Damian points out that existing infrastructures, such as many school management systems, can already provide useful data to generate conversations on how to improve a school’s creative output or simply get them on the move. Some schools, for example, took the opportunity to look at their student management systems and observed pronounced effects which correlated with the number of years the students had been attending the school.

One simple example of an assumption questioned in the IRC comes with distractibility: there is a sentiment that students on one-to-one programmes are more engaged, yet teachers admit they sometimes struggle with classroom management. Through simple surveys, IRC was able to observe patterns emerging which could prove to be very enlightening. Interestingly, the activities in which students engage outside of school is a key contributor to their attitude in the classroom. This moves the conversation to new horizons, offering an axis of analysis that cannot be perceived in the classroom alone – precisely the kind of horizon you would hope an innovations analyst could open.

For those who wish to find out more about this field of research, Damian confirms that the Wikipedia article on learning analytics is rather accurate and provides a good place to begin. After our interview, Damian kindly provided me with a few links that I am happy to share on the IIL blog, namely:

•IRC:  http://www.ircollaborative.org/

•Learning Analytics Collaborative:  http://www.analyticscollaborative.org/

•Purpose of School Research:  http://www.purposeofschool.com/

A selection of Damian’s research publication can be found at:  https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Damian_Bebell/contributions

Damian’s paper together with other contributions about edX MOOCS can be found at : https://www.edx.org/about/research-pedagogy


Dr David Claivaz
Director of Education
Institut International de Lancy