Learning Agency, Not Analytics

I’m sitting watching this Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) presentation about learning analytics, and I’m cringing throughout. It’s so corporatized, so capitalist, so reductive. In fact, one of the slides in this presentation showcases a Gartner Business Information graph that correlates the progression of analytics sophistication to business value. The presenters relate this progression to the kind of analytics that can and should happen in education to improve learning.

Graph showing Business Value on Y axis and Data Analytics Sophistication on X axis. Information optimization moves up the slope from Descriptive to Diagnostic to Predictive to Prescriptive analytics.

Screenshot of Gartner BI analytics graph from Oakleaf and Brown’s March 2017 CNI presentation on “Institutional Learning Analytics: How Can Academic Libraries Connect?”

When I watch presentations like this, about plugging business metrics and corporate assessment values into education, it makes me sick to my stomach. Have none of these folks opened a history book or taken a look at our socio-political present? Do you know who and what, throughout history, has gotten “analyzed” and “assessed” to “determine value”? Property. Animals. People considered property or animals. Indigenous people to this day are sorted and “analyzed” by colonizing governments based on the quanta of their blood, like purebred dogs or horses. Enslaved people were “assessed” by their physical characteristics and breeding capabilities (again like prize-winning animals); and today, their descendants continue to be monitored and analyzed by the violent police state. To think that we want to take this kind of legacy, these kind of tools, and use them on our students? Often without their knowledge or consent? Absolutely repulsive.

Granted, my disgust is nothing new or original. I followed the conversations several months ago when Zoe Fisher laid out the history of learning analytics and the growing resistance and critique against it. I read LibSkrat’s tweet thread about the absolute importance of protecting our students’ privacy and data. And I pored over Emily Drabinski’s blog post calling for us to do more than cry “Resistance!” but to actually formulate action to push back against the encroachment of the neoliberal corporatization of our work as academic librarians and higher education more broadly. I’ve been taking all this in and reflecting on what I think should change, how it should change.

Ideally, we should get rid of learning analytics altogether. It is a colonialist, slave-owning, corporatizing, capitalist practice that enacts violence, yes violence, against the sanctity of a learner’s privacy, body and mind. It is not in keeping with our professional values as librarians or educators. But, as Emily points out in her post, there are very powerful people in our institutions who are demanding that our learners be analyzed, that our value be quantified—even going so far as to insist that it’s all being done for our students’ own good. How can we keep our jobs so we can continue to dismantle the system from within, while making actual progress to protect the interests of our students, all in keeping with our values?

For me, I think the first step lies in providing students with that one thing that property, animals, and people treated as property and animals never get: AGENCY. Lisa Hinchliffe talked a bit about this during the big discussion months ago, though she focused mainly on students wanting to opt in. I’m not as interested in that because I think learning analytics is so pervasive, opting in just isn’t a problem. It’s like worrying that people with privilege won’t have space to exercise their privilege in the fight for equity. Just. Not. An. Issue.

No, instead, I’m talking about agency for learners who may not choose to participate in being analyzed, those who want to push back. You can’t object to something if you don’t know it’s happening to you. You also can’t object if you aren’t empowered to speak up. One of the things we can do for students is help enact their agency by educating them about what’s going on. Rather than continuing these conversations about learning analytics behind their backs, so to speak, let’s engage them in these discussions. Let them see the slide decks and presentations and analytic reports being crafted about their learning. Let them have access to all these data being gleaned from them, so often without their knowledge or consent.

Then, as we provide them the knowledge, let’s empower their agency by amplifying their responses to this knowledge. It could be a simple matter of collecting and reporting on student opinions about learning analytics practices and the way they affect their educational well-being. We could help arrange meetings for students with library and university administration to discuss their concerns or share their ideas about gathering their data. We could collaborate with students on research projects and presentations relating to learning analytics, instead of just reporting on them. Essentially, it’s the difference between exploiting a community to study and report on them versus collaborating with that community in studying their needs. It is the very essence of feminist research methods, rooted in an ethic of care, trust, and collaborative empowerment.

We still need to “reject metrics” and “reject learning analytics,” as Emily says. But as we engage in that resistance, let’s join forces with the students and researchers we both study and serve. Let’s empower agency in our communities and work with them to push back against the corporatization of our work and our values.