Purdue Signals case study: back on track #LAK12

Kimberley Arnold’s article  gives a very readable overview of the Signals project carried out at Purdue University to apply analytics to improve student success. Their approach is interesting in that the information yielded by their application of analytics is fed back at individual student level, and at least some of the onus on recovery and/or improvement is given to the student.

If the stats are sound and the conclusions drawn are defensible, then it seems to me that this is a pretty good way to go. The Signals project is identifying students who may be at risk, based on their personal data and study behaviours and alerting both them and their tutors/faculty support to that possibility.

Each student has a real time view of a traffic signal categorising them as on course for success (green), at moderate risk (amber) or high risk (red).

The student can access links to positive actions that can help them to get back on track and tutors/faculty support staff can opt to intervene directly.

What wasn’t completely clear to me was the extent to which tutors are responding to the signals and offering intervention support, as opposed to the students’ own response to the visual cue offered by the signal. If the former, then the Signals project reflects other ongoing approaches which offer positive support driven largely by the institution. If the latter, and the responsibility for refocusing efforts lies mainly with the student, then this perhaps alleviates some of the ethical concerns associated with a learning analytics approach. We’re simply putting the information out there and allowing students, as more informed individuals, to choose how (and whether) to respond. Much as I like the sound of this latter approach, my experiences are that many of the students who require proactive intervention do not tend to seek it themselves – for a whole range of reasons often tied up with the cause of their falling behind in the first place. The visibility of this system though brings possibilities of a more balanced view of exploiting analytics from a series of mutual perspectives, and that can only be good.


About sharonslade

Dr Sharon Slade is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at the Open University in the UK working to support both tutors and students on Open University distance learning modules and programmes. Her research interests encompass ethical issues in learning analytics and online learning and tuition. Project work includes the development of a student support framework to improve retention and progression and the development of a university wide tool for tracking students and triggering relevant and targeted interventions. She led the development of new policy around the ethical use of learning analytics within the Open University, UK.
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3 Responses to Purdue Signals case study: back on track #LAK12

  1. Nancy says:

    I think that the responsibility does lie with the student in the Signals system, but what makes it a good system is 1) it is “in their face” every time they log on to the course management system and 2) there are messages sent out by the instructor with suggestions on how to improve based on the color of their signal. Even though these are mass mailed, to the student, it is another “contact” with the instructor. This was borne out by comments made by John Campbell in his presentation when he stated that students felt like their instructor “really cared;” even though these messages were automatically generated. Ultimately, though, it is the student’s responsibility to follow up on the instructor’s suggestions. You’re right, there are many students who will not do this and the reasons for that are many. But there are probably many students who will follow up and eventually, retention of those students will probably pay for the system itself.

  2. sharonslade says:

    Thanks Nancy, I agree that this kind of proactive system is a massive step forward and I don’t have reservations about it per se. My only observation is that the students who seem to struggle most are those who often need additional direct support rather than a nudge alone and a hope that they will choose to respond. But yes, this system looks great and will hopefully continue to have positive benefits for both students and institution. Best wishes, Sharon

  3. George says:

    Struggling students may miss what will work for them in blanket scaffolding, although for a proactive and motivated student, this may provide the feedback they need.
    It is sometimes difficult to know, in an online setting, how much is enough, so perhaps LAs that reports on participation, time on line, amount of discussion, etc, may be helpful.

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