Statistics, data analytics and the literacy practices of teaching at universities

The articles on university teaching and data analytics in Saturday’s Financial Times provide substantial intellectual fodder for scholars in literacies studies and/or higher education. They occupied two coveted positions in the print edition: “Universities assess remote tracking to maximize study habits” took up a portion of Page 2 and “We know what you’re learning” occupied the coveted front page of “Life & Arts.”   FT’s educated audience is unlikely to conflate access with learning, which is what the banner for the second article implies. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on these articles from our particular theoretical lenses.

First, there’s the suggestion that performance metrics offer facts.  Perhaps.  But anyone who works with numbers knows that making them mean is an act of interpretation – ask anyone who works with inferential statistics!  It makes sense that there’s (perhaps) a relatively straightforward relationship between OU students’ online reading habits and forum participation and their risk of dropping out because the OU offers distance programmes. But would the algorithm that underpins OU’s prediction mechanism and that combines access data with information about students’ social and economic backgrounds work in blended learning environments? In contexts in which online tools – forums, wikis, blogs, web conferencing – are used quite differently by different tutors?  Lots of questions that scholars in digital literacies and/or those who take a practice perspective are equipped to explore, not least in relation to the ways in which numbers are used to represent knowledge about literacy. Mary Hamilton’s book “Literacy and the Politics of Representation” has interesting things to say on that topic!

The articles are also an intriguing window into changes in academic publishing. The Life & Arts feature gives considerable space to a University of Birmingham scholar. A photo from his studies occupies the page center immediately below the banner, and the link to his self-published book appears in bold.  Those of us familiar with Shirley Bryce Heath’s work might raise our eyebrows at the title, but the more thought-provoking point relates to changes in academic work being wrought by the need to promote and self-promote. Karin Tusting’s research team is going to have more than a little to say about writing and knowledge production in the contemporary academy.

A third point – and then I’ll stop! – relates to larger issues pertaining to the distribution of knowledge production.  Learning, teaching and creating are no longer the sole domain of the academy if they ever were, and the redistribution of these functions within and across social actors is amply evident in the second article.  A representative for Macmillan Science and Education receives considerable column space, something to which those with a more critical bent would surely draw attention. But I’m more interested in the fact that their spokesperson is from the technology side of things. It’s the programmers who write those algorithms that impact practice, and that is too often glossed over. These are important issues in the whose-knowledge-counts debates and lead to further reflection on what we all might want to learn and understand about the numbers representing our work.

Finally, it would be easy to take pot shots at the Macmillan rep’s use of numbers to represent his company’s success, and to raise important issues related to differences in nation’s university drop-out rates, but I’ll resist.  Except that I couldn’t…