Online Blogucation

Whom will the data serve? Thoughts on Usefulness and Portals for Education

As noted in the article Salman Khan: The New Andrew Carnegie? -

...knowledge no longer needs to be bound into the paper and cloth of a book but can float free on the wireless waves of the Internet. There’s a lot of junk bobbing in those waves as well — information that is outdated, inaccurate, or flat-out false — so the emergence of online educational materials that are both free of charge and carefully vetted is a momentous development. This phenomenon is all the more significant given the increasing scrutiny directed at for-profit online universities, which have been criticized for burdening students with debt even as they dispense education of questionable usefulness. Websites offering high-quality instruction for free are the Carnegie libraries of the 21st century: portals of opportunity for curious and motivated learners, no matter what their material circumstances (Paul, 2011, para. 6).

I pursue the goal of excelling as an engineer or architect of learning and to be otherwise associated with the proliferation of "portals of opportunity for curious and motivated learners, no matter what their material circumstances" (Paul, 2011, para. 6). In some sense, I am these things already as an Academic Trainer and Consultant with Pearson eCollege. If I had a personal mission statement, it would be worded similarly and my destiny would be to serve in an industry associated with or embedded within the systems of education.

Yet, that’s not the point of this post!

I found it interesting the Paul (2011) article quoted above suggests the phenomenon of high quality online vetted materials " all the more significant given the increasing scrutiny directed at for-profit online universities, which have been criticized for burdening students with debt even as they dispense education of questionable usefulness."

Could not many of us argue that public colleges and universities also "dispense education" of "questionable usefulness"? Actually, many might also debate whether education is dispensed or received or shared or…

Wait, that’s not the point of this post either!

So, what is the point you ask?

The point is to consider critically the reality that all colleges and universities - regardless of profit motive or mission statement - are justifiably susceptible to this questioning of usefulness. Knowledge and skills needed for professions and trades evolve quickly in part due to the globalization of knowledge and virtual removal of barriers to access to information through the internet for a large portion of the world’s population, but certainly not all of that population! Let's question some things...

Could we argue that a nursing or teaching degree in the United States from 1990 is as useful today in the same locale as one from 2010? Does locale matter? How does that impact usefulness?

Does on the job real-world apprenticeship style workflow-learning add value to the formal education received? If yes, how is that measured?

Does a graduate's lack of continued professional or personal development post-graduation to become or remain productive in the workforce as laborer or entrepreneur necessarily reflect negatively on the value of educational portals provided by a college or university?

Yes, that’s the point.

While there is much that can be unpackaged from the messages of the selected quote opening this post, the point of this post is to ask you to think critically about what we are measuring when we refer to educational usefulness, how we are measuring it and defining the variables associated with the measures, and ultimately why we are measuring it – whom will the data serve?

Lisa Marie Johnson, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege


Paul, A.M. (2011, November 16). Salman Khan: The new Andrew Carnegie? The emergence of free, high-quality online courses could change learning forever. Retrieved from Times Online MagazineIdeas section (link opens new page):


Are our students learning what we’re teaching?

Assessment is not a four letter word but among many higher education faculty it might as well be. The current tide of “show me” in assessment has alienated faculty. The approach has often been a top down model and it isn’t working.

Let’s listen and learn… 

I know my students. I know my subject matter. I can tell you which students “get it” and which ones “don’t”. I am in the classroom.

Here is what good teachers do. We start with intended student learning outcomes that allow us as instructors to design our curriculum with a focus on guiding student learning and not just on course content delivery.
Critical thinking skills are essential in all disciplines of higher education but how often do we have students enter our courses not bringing with them the tools they have acquired in their cumulative learning? This linkage for students requires that our teaching not only be systematic but behaviorally systemic. We push students to apply their knowledge and skills throughout all parts of their life. The trend in higher education is no longer about “seat time” or “activity minutes” but rather student demonstration of learning and we get it!

 So now you ask us, “How will we know if the students learned what we had hoped? How will they know?”

The progression of gathering information from course assignments, discussion threads and exams extends to improvement of subsequent learning and is the way we facilitate learning. Formative assessment allows for learning to be a process of improvement. It encourages students to build on previous learning and to transfer that learning into new situations. Summative assessment on the other hand evaluates an end product or process. In Levels of Assessment: From the Student to the Institution, Miller and Leskes (2005) explain:

“While the holistic assignment of grades (an A, B or F) is a way to evaluate student work, such grades represent averaged estimates of overall quality and communicate little to students about their strengths, weaknesses, or ways to improve. A better way to aid learning is through analyticalassessment, which can be as simple as written comments on student papers or as structured as the use of a detailed rubric for an assignment; such analysis can reveal precisely which concepts a student finds challenging.”

Using the student information we collect (assess) to inform our curriculum design means improved student learning within and across courses and as good instructors this is what we do!
So, is this about better teaching or better learning? You be the judge. But we will tell you it is not about extra work as we perceive the imposed ‘culture of evidence’ called assessment! It is about promoting collaborative work among all stakeholders to benefit our students!

Karen R. Owens, Ph.D.
Higher Education Assessment Consultant
Pearson eCollege

Miller, R. & Leskes, A. (2005). Levels of Assessment: From the Student to the Institution. A Greater Expectations Publication: Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC & U).
Retrieved July 20, 2010 from:



I just got off the phone with a colleague who has lost 35 pounds in 2 months.  How did he do it?  Data.  Well, data mixed with exercise and technology to be more precise.  He tried the Nike / iPod experiment and he’s a believer.

This professor of communications and lover of cheese steaks bought a new pair of running shoes a few months back.  Then, he bought the Nike sensor system – a small sensor you put in your shoe somehow.  This sensor sends information to your iPod during a run.  That data tells you (in real time) how you’re doing, but it also allows you to see any trends in your running after you upload the data to the Nike+ website.  Apparently he’s run about 340 miles and his average speed has increased by 1 mile per hour.  He can tell you how many calories he’s burned and he’s delighted to tell you how many pounds he has lost.  

See, data is changing how we live.  And data aggregation, data mining, and data analysis are making our lives better as technology gives us more and more ways to use it quickly and easily.  For example, my wife was called a few months back about her credit card.  Visa thought she might have lost her card.  Why?  Because she purchased a dress that was 2 sizes too big!  Guess what?  Her card had been stolen.  (No, she had not gained any weight…that would have been awkward!)  The credit card company looks for patterns and found something odd in the behavior of the card.  So they checked.

Data is everywhere we look today.  New cars will tell you how many miles you have driven on a tank of gas and how many more you are likely to get out of that same tank.  There is a website where you can upload a sickness in your family.  Then, you can look around your city, state, or the entire country to see where other people are sick too.  Data might help you avoid the plague!!!

Data is useful and becoming easier and easier to digest.  My phone tells me when my flight is late – a handy little feature when you fly 100,000 miles a year.  My refrigerator tells me when the filter is no longer doing any good.  Heck, even my daughter’s baby monitor tells us when the battery is low.  From weather patterns to traffic patterns, data can make our lives tremendously easier.

So why is it so hard to find data for schools?  This is especially true with online schools.  Shouldn’t you know where your students spend their time in classes?  Don’t you think knowing how often you’re B students post vs your D students post to a discussion would be a good piece of information?  Does the first day a student checks into class help determine their probability of dropping?  If you don’t know the answers to these’s time to.

One of my favorite tools I’ve ever gotten to work with is a business intelligence tool, created by IBM, that we overlay classes with in our system.  This tool allows me and my team to try and predict success, correlate at-risk behaviors to drops, and find benchmarks to hold students accountable to.  Did you know that in most online courses a larger class size (30-35) tends to have a better completion rate than classes with less than 30?  It’s been proven time and time again through data.  (Mind you – data can also beg lots of questions!)

Data mining is becoming easier and easier as technology evolves.  Data analysis is becoming more and more automated.  It’s time for your school’s programs to join the party!  Trends and operational reports are crucial to making accurate predictions and drawing quality conclusions today.  Accreditors are soon going to see this power and demand evidence of data-driven decisions for their schools.  But before the ‘stick’ of accreditation swats at you, shouldn’t you look to the carrot of quality?  Granted, this power can be abused.  (My boss loves to look at my completion rates and give me grief as my public speaking class isn’t the highest completed class on campus…it’s public speaking!)  But the data is there whether you mine it or not.  The information to help you increase retention is sitting there whether or not it’s analyzed.  

We study, analyze, and mine data for everything else today.  It’s time to get education up to speed, don’t you think?  Now if you’ll pardon me…I need to get to a store to buy a sensor.  My pants don’t quite fit like they did last year…


Jeff D Borden, M.A.

Senior Director of Teaching & Learning