The Potential of Online Learning Data

Greg Cottrell
May 10, 2021

As students spend more time learning online, it is incumbent upon educators to find ways to effectively use data to help students succeed. One way to accomplish this is to use students’ online learning activity as a form of feedback about learning. While some teachers do have access to this data, most are not analyzing the data with the goal of improving learning. Learning from and using online learning data should not in any way diminish the value of human interaction with students. But if educators move their needle slightly to use online behavior data, students will benefit. 

Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that giving teachers access to student online activity 24/7 is ethically sound or instructionally useful. A record of the 500 websites that a student accessed in the last 24 hours does little to effectively inform an English teacher about how that student conducted research for their class essay. But it is helpful for that English teacher to know the online activity that was conducted for their assignment. And for it to be useful, that activity needs to be presented in a meaningful way. 

A great way to use data about online learning is through the use of “targeted” online learning activity data. Through the use of this targeted data, teachers only have access to the online learning activity data related only to their class. This addresses the ethical concerns of allowing all teachers access to all student online activity data and reduces the amount of data the teachers need to try to decipher. 

In 2019, Learnics LLC received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a method of collecting and reporting targeted online learner analytics. The process that Learnics created puts the ownership of the data into the hands of the students. Students install software that allows each student to start and stop a recording of their online activity. Teachers create a Learnics-enabled assignment and when a student accesses the assignment they are prompted to begin recording their online activity. As students complete the assignment following whatever instructions or objectives the teacher shared, all of their activity is recorded and stored locally on the student’s laptop. When the student completes the assignment, they are given the opportunity to review their data so they know exactly what is being submitted and are asked to submit their online activity alongside their assignment. Teachers can then access the activity data through a teacher dashboard that allows each teacher to see information such as the average amount of time the students spend on the assignment, most popular websites visited and search terms used. Teachers can also drill down to individual student data and see the unique learning experience of each student. Essentially, Learnics-enabled assignments require students to “show their work” when completing assignments online.

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Teachers and administrators need to prioritize ways to gather and interpret online activity data.  As a high school principal, one of my favorite ways to utilize online learner activity data is when conducting teacher observations. Any good administrator knows that the key to conducting effective teacher observations is to not focus on what the teacher is doing in class, but instead to focus on what the students are doing. When observing a class where the students spend a portion of time working their laptops, it is a perfect opportunity to look at records of student online activity during the class in order to engage in some really meaningful reflective discussions with the teacher during the post-observation conference. The teacher and I take a deep dive into looking at this online learning activity data to really try to understand the experience that each student had. These post-observation conversations often develop into extremely rich and insightful reflections about the lesson design and individual student needs. 

I highly recommend that any administrator who truly wants to be an instructional leader begins to help their teachers develop strategies for utilizing online activity data. This can best be accomplished through professional development or PLC groups that are specifically focused on an analysis of student online activity.  If we want to improve student learning, we must first understand it.  The analysis of student online learning behavior provides information that is critical to understanding and improving learning. 

Online activity data is a huge untapped resource in the field of education.  Ethically accessing and effectively interpreting the data presents some challenges.  However, I have found that by doing so, I have become a better instructional leader, teachers have improved their lesson design and students have become more aware and intentional digital learners.

Dr. Greg Cottrell is a High School Principal and Learnics Cofounder
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