Technology

What Clicks From 70,000 Courses Reveal About Student Learning

September 07, 2016

Students who frequently check their grades throughout the semester tend to get better marks than do those who look less often.

That’s one of the findings from a new study by Blackboard, a company that sells course-management software to hundreds of colleges. It’s probably one of the deepest data dives ever done on student clicks on college web systems, analyzing aggregate data from 70,000 courses at 927 colleges and universities in North America during the spring 2016 semester.

The New Education Landscape

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The promise: Big data could lead to insights on how to keep struggling students on track, or at least let professors test their long-held assumptions about student habits. Just about every college course these days is plugged into a learning-management system that lets students do things like review PowerPoint slides from lectures, participate in online discussions, and check their grades. That gives colleges, and software companies like Blackboard, the technical ability to track every click, and compare those digital breadcrumbs to student performance.

But it’s hard to know what to make of the click patterns. Take the finding about grade-checking: Is it an existential victory for grade-grubbers, proving that obsessing over grades leads to high marks? Or does it simply confirm the common-sense notion that the best students are the most savvy at using things like course-management systems?

Of course, the research shows only that there’s a correlation between checking grades and getting good ones. "I’m not saying anything that implies causality," says John Whitmer, director of learning analytics and research at Blackboard. Still, he does see the finding as an opportunity to improve course-management tools. For instance, Blackboard could add an option that lets professors send email reminders to students who haven’t checked in recently and put grade information in front of them so they know where they stand.

"It could be that does nothing," Mr. Whitmer concedes, "but it could be it has a slight positive impact." That’s a relatively new mentality toward designing courses and tools — applying an engineering approach.

John Fritz, assistant vice president for instructional technology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, agrees that colleges can and should do more with data from learning-management systems to try to improve student engagement. But that means persuading professors to think differently about what the LMS can do, he says. Professors nowadays see tools like Blackboard mainly as a way to deliver information, like slides or grades. But it could be seen as "a real-time indicator of student engagement."

Unprecedented Role

Some professors may be surprised that Blackboard has the right to poke around in student data. The company insists that it is complying with federal student-privacy laws, and the terms of its contracts with colleges, because it is considering only aggregate data and not identifying individual students.

The new study is evidence of the new and unique role that software companies now play as colleges think more about so-called learning science, says Mitchell Stevens, an associate professor in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, though he stressed that he did not know the details of the Blackboard study.

"We've entered a world in which many of the most data-rich organizations about student teaching and learning are not schools — they're learning-management systems, they are MOOC providers, they are other instructional-service providers," he says. "We have to start thinking about how to govern data and research in this new plural domain," he adds. "We have every reason to think that the proprietary sector should be taking leadership in building that science, but how we architect and govern that science is the frontier." Mr. Stevens is involved in an effort to create new policies and ethical norms for such uses of data; the project released a model policy this week.

What else did Blackboard find in its student-click research?

Students who spend more time than the average clicking around the "content" section of a course, where notes and PowerPoint slides are often kept, are slightly less likely to get a high grade. "Perhaps students who understand the material and students who are well prepared don’t need to spend a lot of time learning the material," says Mr. Whitmer, the Blackboard researcher.

The company planned to release an overview of the research on Wednesday on its blog. Blackboard officials also planned to present data from the study at education conferences, including Educause.

Earlier research showed how much students value the ability to check their grades using learning-management systems. In 2007 a survey of undergraduates found that checking grades was by far the most popular function of tools like Blackboard.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.

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