Learning Analytics in Legal Education

by Lucas Lixinski

A recent feature on the Times Higher Education supplement questions the power and effectiveness of learning analytics as a tool in higher education. These tools, which go all out in “flipping”, “blending”, and otherwise “personalizing the student experience”, are all the hype in universities these days. I wonder, though, what they can actually do for legal education.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to like them. While I am not exactly the most tech-savvy, early-adopter type, I think there is some potential in the promises of learning analytics. I would love to be able to know how students interact with the reading materials posted online beyond anecdotal evidence (how much time they spend on the readings; what readings they consider to be priority; even whether they print or read on-line). But I am also mindful that, as far as I can see, legal education is about creating a certain analytical habit of critical thinking. And that habit is best developed, in my opinion, in the back-and-forth in the classroom.

So, maybe what learning analytics can do is to help free up time in the classroom for more of the back-and-forth, and help me as a teacher know what to focus on in that ever-shrinking time.

This strategy, of course, assumes that I take the time to stay on top of the data constantly, while simultaneously not deferring to it to much. There is a risk, as the THE story linked above indicates in all-too-real terms, that learning analytics will displace responsibility away from teachers, that “the machine” will keep track of student progress for me, and I will become numb to signs in the classroom.

Also, and relatedly, we need to be very mindful of who analytics are used for (or, in jargon I am still uncomfortable with in a university context, who the “customer” of data analytics is). If analytics are all about the student experience, does that mean that the data is geared towards catering to student preferences? If that is the case, aren’t we missing the point of education as challenging, rather than settling into, path dependency?

As comfy as it would be for me to have data tell me what courses to explore based on what materials I focus on the most in my readings if I were a student, as an educator I need to know that I need to challenge, rather than cater to, what students think they know about reality. That is how critical thinking develops (or that is my opinion, about which I wrote elsewhere on this blog).

So, learning analytics: yay or nay? I remain hopeful, but I think it all boils down to how the university treats the data, and who it sees as being primarily in control of it: the students whose fees the university needs, or the professionals who fulfill the ethical mandate of education.

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