Do Higher Education Institutions Need a Learning Analytics Strategy?

The LACE Workshop, “Developing a Learning Analytics Strategy for a Higher Education Institution” took place on June 17th 2014, with over 35 participants exploring the issues and considering the question of what such a strategy would look like.

Approaching Strategy as a Business Model

The approach taken was to use an adapted version of the Business Model Canvas – see the workshop home page for more information – to attempt to frame a strategic response to Learning Analytics (LA). The use of this approach, in which the Canvas was used flexibly rather than rigidly, was predicated on the idea that most of the factors inherent in a successful business model are also important for the success of a LA initiative, and that pitching such an initiative to senior management would be more successful if these factors had been considered. Considering all of these factors at the same time, albeit in a shallow fashion, should be a good check for how realistic the approach is. The factors, which are further teased apart in the Canvas are:

  • The stakeholders (“interested parties” might be a better term, or “the people for whom value is to be created”).
  • What value (not necessarily financial) would be reaped by these stakeholders
  • How the stakeholders will be related to, engaged with, etc.
  • Which stakeholders are prepared to pay, and how.
  • The human, physical, etc resources required, and indicated costs.
  • The activities to be undertaken, and indicated costs
  • Key partners and suppliers.

The Business Model Canvas approach appears, on face value, to be a sensible way of approaching the question of what a LA strategy might look like but it presumes a subset of approaches to strategy. The workshop could be viewed as a thought experiment about the nature of this subset.

A separate web-page contains the results of the group work, Canvas templates with post-it notes attached.

Different Kinds of Strategy

Three differing approaches to a LA strategy seemed to emerge in discussions:

  1. A major cross-functional programme, “LA Everywhere”.
  2. LA in the service of particular institution-level strategic objectives, “Targetted LA”.
  3. A strategy based around putting enabling factors in place, “Latent LA”.

The majority of the workshop groups ended up following the second approach when using the Canvas, although it should be noted that budget and human resource limitations were assumed.

One aspect that emerged clearly in discussion, feedback, and comment, was that even targetted LA initiatives have a complex set of inter-related, sometimes conflicting, stakeholders and values. Attempts to accommodate these relationships leads to a rapidly inflating challenge and pushes discussion in the direction of “LA Everywhere”. LA Everywhere implies a radical re-orientation of the institution around Learning Analytics and is unlikely to be feasible in most Higher Education establishments, even assuming substantial financial commitments.

The Latent LA approach can be seen as a means of addressing this complexity, but also as a strategy driven by a need to learn more before targeting institution-level strategic objectives. Latent LA may not be recognised by some observers as a LA strategy per se but it is a strategic response to the emergence of the concept of learning analytics and the potential benefits it offers.

The enabling factors could include aspects such as:

  • data and statistical literacy;
  • amending policies and practices around information management, ownership, and governance to encompass LA-relevant systems and LA uses;
  • ethical and value-based principles;
  • fact-finding and feasibility assessment;
  • changing culture towards greater use data as evidence (in an open-minded way, with limitations understood);
  • developing a set of policies, principles, and repeatable patterns for the identification, prioritisation, and design of LA initiatives.

Issues with the Business Model Approach

Although the template based on the Business Model Canvas provided a framework to consider Learning Analytics strategy, there were a number of practical and conceptual limitations for this application. The practical issues were principally that time was rather limited (slightly over 1 hour) and that the activity was not being undertaken in a particular organisational context. This limited the extent to which conclusions could be drawn vs ideas explored.

The conceptual limitations for considering LA strategy include:

  • The Canvas did not lend itself to an exploration of inter-relationships and dependencies, and the differing kinds of relationship (this point is not about linking stakeholders to value proposition, etc, which is possible using colour coding, for example).
  • One of the key questions that is more important in education than in a normal business context is: what effect will this have on teaching/educational practice? The Canvas is not designed to map out effect on practice, and how that relates to values or educational theory.
  • A business model approach is not a good fit to a strategic response that is akin to Latent LA.

Do HE Institutions Need a LA Strategy?

This is a question that will ultimately be answered by history, but it may be more appropriate to ask whether a HE institution can avoid having a LA strategy. The answer is probably that avoidance is not an option; it will become progressively harder for leaders of HE institutions to appear to be doing nothing about LA when jostling for status with their peers.

In other words, whether or not there is a need, it seems inevitable that LA strategies will be produced. The tentative conclusion I draw from the workshop is that a careful blend of Latent and Targeted LA will be the best approach to having a strategy that delivers benefit, with the balance between Latent and Targeted varying between institutions. In this model, Latent LA lays the foundations for long term success while some shorter-term “results” and something identifiable arising from Targeted LA are a political necessity, both internal to the institution, and externally.

Web links to a selection of resources related to the question of learning analytics strategy may be found on the workshop home page.

This post was first published on the Learning Analytics Community Exchange website,