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Tracking Learners in the Online Classroom

By IGI Global on Jun 15, 2011
IGI Global would like to thank Shalin Hai-Jew for contributing this article outlining the strengths and pitfalls of tracking student data in open-source learning/course management systems (L/CMS). Dr. Hai-Jew's newest publication, Constructing Self-Discovery Learning Spaces Online: Scaffolding and Decision Making Technologies, will become available this Winter. An excellent resource for any library, her edited research volume, Virtual Immersive and 3D Learning Spaces: Emerging Technologies and Trends, is currently available in the IGI Global Bookstore.


For years now, there's been talk of cobbling together a range of Web 2.0 technologies for a coherent learning experience. Some faculty have already done so—they've used wikis or blogs as a space for asynchronous interactivity and student sharing of work, and they just use a stand-alone electronic grading system. Other faculty use bare-bones open-source learning / course management systems (L/CMSes) for basic digital content delivery, asynchronous communications, and grading. Besides offering a coherent one-stop experience, professional L/CMSes also offer the tracking of learners.

"Learner Tracking"

Learner tracking is not an insidious phenomenon; it's not "digital stalking." It may be done per an individual student; it may be done in the aggregate (to see how an entire class behaved and performed).

Rather, it's about being aware of the individual aspects of online learners to enable customizing the learning based on their needs. Learner tracking is about fairly assessing student participation based on facts and not just impressions. Learner tracking also enables the formation of a coherent vision of a learner's performance in a class, a class sequence, or a certificate or degree program over time. This tracking may be persistent over time, for long-term electronic memory, given the low-cost of the archival of digital information.

Many institutions of higher education archive online courses. These are taken off the server but kept on digital tapes or other memory devices. These condensed courses may be reconstituted and re-uploaded onto the servers for future access and use.

Ideally, not only would learners benefit from an enhanced online learning experience, but administrators and instructors who run the learning program may enhance it based on the information they collect from the tracking of learner behaviors.

Electronic learner tracking may have a role in determining who first shared an innovative design if it ever comes down to an intellectual property scuffle. For example, this may be used for digital forensics to see if an individual has illegally accessed or changed information.. It may also be accessed to investigate learner grievances.

The Types of Information used in "Tracking"

Learner-Submitted Information. Various mainstream L/CMSes offer a range of types of learner tracking. Some of these involve learner-submitted information. For example, students may create profiles that include a photo, biographical information, and self-trivia types of information—such as favorite colors, music, hobbies, and other types of data. Profiles are used to humanize the online classroom. They may be used as part of an icebreaker activity. They help learners invest in the online classroom. And this is one element for the early tracking of learners.
Fast Facts in a Student Profile

A common type of learner tracking involves student participation—in terms of their posting of work, communications on the message board, interactions in live web conferencing, and their uploading of digital files of work. While the machine may offer a quantitative version of student participation, live human assessments of the contents of their postings are generally required to assess the quality of students' work. Student emails therefore become part of the digital record.

Instructor-Created Learner Tracking. Another type of learner tracking utilizes information provided by the instructor during the learning term—involving responses to works in the digital dropboxes or message boards. The grades posted to the various learners for their work throughout a term also enhance this sense of learner tracking.

Some gradebooks include both quantitative and qualitative feedback. A screenshot image below shows the system for one popular L/CMS, which includes numerical grades but also a space for comments (which are viewable by students).

Text Box in the Gradebook

Automated Machine-Generated Data. Another channel for student tracking includes automated information captures. The L/CMS involves a kind of sentience. Instructors can usually download reports of student log-ins, the numbers of posts they've made to the message board, and other types of activities. Beyond the general reports that may be available (individually or in the aggregate), instructors may ask system administrators to conduct back-end queries for even more precise information.

Another type of learner tracking, likely soon to be a federal requirement, is the ability to authenticate the identities of online learners for an online course or training. Part of the authentication may involve on-ground verification through a third-party organization, which checks official identification. There will likely be some sort of electronic tracking—through biometrics, through established Internet Protocol (IP) addresses—maybe through live webcams, and other means.

The Benefits of Learner Tracking in Online Classrooms

Learner tracking really is about good teaching—to have regular progress reports of learners and to identify red flags for possible stragglers. Such awareness may enhance early interventions to help learners.

These various types of learner tracking in L/CMSes stand in, in part, for the instructor's attention and memory. This requires instructor initiative, though, to access the various learner tracking tools appropriately and without compromising learner privacy rights. They need to be able to access helpful reports at various times in the learning term to enhance student learning. They need to be able to read the visual statistical piecharts and bar graphs and Excel tables that offer the summarized data.

Instructors also need to be able to search and find emails in the email archives and message boards. They will need to know how to set up student access rights—such as delimiting learner abilities to revise their own message boards (as a hedge against academic dishonesty or revisions to prior postings).

It would make sense to have transparent disclosures of what is tracked—so students know the score when they join an online class.

You can read additional blog entries written by Dr. Hai Jew when you click here.

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