College of Education holds webinar series on the use of student data

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Learning analysts and education experts have called on administrators and members of faculty to effectively use students’ data to transform teaching and learning in higher education institutions. 

This, according to the experts, would enhance the learning capabilities of students based on the analysis of data gathered from students' online learning behaviours.

This was a key point stressed during a four-part webinar series organized by the College of Education of the University of Ghana, on the theme: "The use of student data in uncertain times: implications for higher education institutions in the Global South”. The lead presenter as well as other discussants were in sync with the call to enhance teaching and learning modules using students' data as a guide.

On Day 1 of the series, discussants enumerated the challenges, opportunities and risks associated with “Big Data and Higher Education in the Global South” suggesting that data and learning analytics should not disregard the natural human experiences of teaching and learning.

The Pro Vice-Chancellor in charge of Academic and Student Affairs of the University of Ghana, Prof. Nana Aba Appiah Amfo, who chaired the function, called for more enhanced collaboration and capacity building for data scientists, faculty and students, while urging them to use data to serve the needs of society.  Prof. Appiah Amfo further urged universities to maximize the information that comes with the deployment of learning management systems and digitized libraries, to train students for the global world.

To emphasize her point, she said, "processed data is information, processed information is knowledge and processed knowledge is wisdom". 

Speaking during the opening ceremony of the webinar series, the Acting Provost of the College of Education, Prof. Michael Tagoe, stated that many universities have deployed learning management systems however, these universities have failed to harness the huge data within the learning systems and integrated library software to influence current as well as future academic decisions, including student enrollment and student course preferences.

Prof. Tagoe noted that often, faculty and administrators in higher education institutions fail to understand their students due to lack of access to important data that will enable the tracking of the academic performance of students and also give a fair knowledge of the challenges specific students face in the learning process. 

The Acting Provost said that lecturers and school administrators would be in a better position to offer assistance to students lagging behind in their studies when such data is available to them.

He expressed hope that the topic would build the capacity of faculty and administrators to be able to incorporate the data of students to transform teaching and learning from a teacher-centered approach to a student-focused approach.

A Professor of Learning Analytics at the Open University in the United Kingdom, Prof. Bart Rienties, gave a presentation on how the Open University uses learning analytics to improve the learning design.

Explaining learning analytics from the perspective of Ferguson and Buckingham Shum (2012), he said “Social LA [learning analytics] focuses on how learners build knowledge together in their cultural and social settings”. 

He explained that by monitoring the clicking behaviors of both students and teachers and using data gathered on such learning experiences, meaningful inferences can be made and effectively used to support the learning capabilities of students.  

He stated that the social and cultural settings of learners are key in learning analytics since the socio-cultural setting of learners breeds variations.

Prof Rienties pointed out that over 90% of tertiary institutions make the data collected on students available to only teachers however, the Open University is in the process of availing such data to students as well “in a sensible and sensitive” manner.

He stressed the relevance of feedback to students when it comes to using students’ data and learning analytics to promote efficiency in teaching and learning.

He noted that learning analytics is good for online teaching methods and can also be used to intervene in the students’ learning journey. He emphasized the need for clear senior management support, and bottom-up support from teachers and researchers who are willing to take risks.

Prof. Seth Akonor Adjei, an Assistant Professor of Data Science at the Northern Kentucky University, suggested that when it comes to a huge institution like the University of Ghana, it is prudent to start the implementation of learning analytics with a small department which can later be scaled up following from the Open University’s approach.

Prof. Adjei added that when it comes to learning analytics, there are three typologies namely; prescriptive, descriptive and the third which deals with policy changes.

A Postdoctoral Fellow at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) -Ghana, Dr. Angela Tabiri focused on how best learning analytics and research can be used concurrently for the benefit of students.

She acknowledged that learning analytics would tell you what to do, however, she questioned how research can be used to help students lagging in a particular course.

She noted that there is sufficient data on students, however, the challenge lies in understanding and integrating the information available to impact teaching and learning activities in higher learning institutions within the Global South.  

Dr. Tabiri expressed the view that most students struggle to understand concepts and ideas, but large class sizes often do not give room for lecturers to pay attention to individual learning needs.

A Senior Learning and Teaching Manager at the Open University (UK), Tom Olney, advised that in learning analytics institutions need to start simple and celebrate the small successes that comes along the way. “You need to learn to walk before you run”, he emphasized.

A research professor at the University of South Africa, Prof. Paul Prinsloo cautioned that sensitive information about students such as their sexual orientation should be excluded from the data set.

He posited that data is precarious as it makes some things visible and others unnoticeable.

On his part, Mr. Lucas Y. Chigibatia, the Chief Information Technology Officer at the University of Ghana, emphasized the kind of infrastructure needed to capture, process and store the relevant data such as demographics of students who apply yearly to the University of Ghana.  

While advocating access to cheaper storage, he said the infrastructure should entail both hardware and software devices; connectivity and the capacity of the software to capture all the elements of data required for data analysis as well as tools to interpret the data set.

Dr. Duncan Banks of the Open University (UK) ended the series with a presentation on “Ethical Issues in the Use of Educational Data Mining and Learning Analytics”. He cautioned that ethics such as truthfulness, confidentiality and justice must not be overlooked in handling student data.

“Data collected on students must be accurate, complete, secure and available”, Dr. Duncan stressed.