Institutional Use Trends

Trends Unpacked (Part 1): Organizational Challenges and Learning Analytics

Lindsay PinedaThis is another guest post from Lindsay Pineda, Senior Implementation Consultant, Unicon, Inc. with Patrick Lynch, Technology Enhanced Learning Advisor, University of Hull.

Earlier this month, I posted an article about the learning analytics readiness trends observed over the last year as I traveled to several UK HE (higher education) institutions with my colleague, Patrick Lynch from the University of Hull. Patrick and I are co-authoring a series of articles titled “Trends Unpacked.” In this series, we will expand upon some of the trends discussed in the article, “Learning Analytics Adoption and Implementation Trends: Identifying Organizational and Technical Patterns“.

Patrick’s knowledge is two-fold, as he not only works within HE, but he is also a leader at his university regarding learning analytics. Our combined expertise brings the added value of having two different perspectives when visiting institutions.

This article characterizes common concerns expressed by individuals we spoke with at the institutions. We will also provide potential solutions for these concerns, based on institutional feedback.

We are focusing on the first two aspects of organizational challenges and trends:

  • Level of change management comfort/ willingness
  • Organizational support for analytics

In future posts, we’ll cover additional organizational challenges and trends.

Level of Change Management Comfort/ Willingness

As highlighted in the article “Learning Analytics Adoption and Implementation Trends: Identifying Organizational and Technical Patterns”, some of the challenges and trends we observed were related to change management:

  • Staff expressed concern in areas including level of comfort and willingness to accept change. This included job roles, additional responsibilities, and changes to current practices
  • Institutional leaders sometimes did not have a clear understanding of the level of effort required for a larger scale initiative such as learning analytics
  • Academic and teaching staff expressed resistance around prescriptive allocations of their time related to teaching and advising

The following examples illustrate the types of change management challenges most often expressed at the institutions:

  • “Change fatigue” – This particular feeling was expressed by many at the institutions we visited. At one particular institution, we were told, “People are used to things changing all the time. Resistance is futile.” While this is somewhat comical, it is unfortunately very true. Some viewed this attitude as a positive thing because individuals within the institution are not “scared” by change. However, the fact remains that too many changes happening at the same time, or in short succession, can lead to wariness about what’s to come. Often, those charged with acting on the changes are not the ones actually mandating the changes. As one institution told us, “They (the changes) come from the third floor where the executives live”.
  • The “something else for me to do” syndrome – At other institutions, we experienced resistance from a group of academics who voiced significant frustration. When we asked the question, “How do you think learning analytics will affect your job duties?” we were met with heavy sighs. One participant stated, “We only have a certain number of hours allotted for teaching, advising, etc. A learning analytics implementation would add to workload and that would need to be planned for.”

Institutions shared with us their ideas regarding potential solutions and recommendations that they feel would be beneficial:

  • Clarifying job roles and duties – Engaging in this type of exercise is advantageous for any institution. We noticed that many institutions had old, outdated job descriptions and duties. Clarifying these job descriptions and duties can be a large undertaking, but we saw a lot of excitement, passion, and willingness from staff members to help leadership with these types of assessments. In the words of one participant, “It helps with job role, task clarification, and professional growth for those who are motivated to be involved.”Another approach to managing change fatigue is to reduce the overall number of changes people need to deal with by packaging change into larger programs whereby learning analytics isn’t a change, but rather a part of other initiatives. In general, we recommended institutions look for ways to incorporate learning analytics into existing initiatives for the best chance of success.
  • Involve others in the changes – Every institution we met with expressed a common challenge regarding implementing change. Those who would actually do the new tasks had no involvement in the planning phases. A participant at one institution stated, “Perhaps selecting a member from each department that will be affected by the change to sit on a steering committee or change management panel would be a way to involve us.” Delegation is the key takeaway here.
  • Communicate the changes before they happen – At many institutions, we were advised that changes were often relayed via email and often very shortly before they were to be implemented—some even cited only a week’s notice. There were even examples of particular groups who were not told about changes, but were still held accountable for them. One individual told us, “I never know when a change is going to happen or if I’m even doing my job right. Most of the time, I’m in a constant state of anxiety about what I might be doing wrong.” Employees who feel this on a daily basis are not able to focus on the real reason they are there: to help students succeed. Involving staff from the start of the initiative, and having their input upfront, helps establish the message and ensures that it is well understood among the “target audience” (e.g., advisors, academics, students, etc.). This allows the message to be tailored to the audience by someone from the particular group, which help with understanding and buy-in. The same can be said for the actual training to accommodate the changes. Most institutions did not have a formalized training plan for changes that were rolling out to staff. “Well thought out training is not something we excel at,” said one institutional leader. Recognition and awareness is a great first step and helps fuel the importance to communicate and train staff on a more regular basis.
  • Institutional approaches to project management – Having established project management processes helps the institution identify and manage what work is required to reach the end goal. Many of the challenges we identified could be addressed through well thought out and well-implemented institutional project management approaches. It isn’t just learning analytics initiatives that institutions struggle with; establishing project management processes is also a challenge. Creating a project management structure that can be applied to other initiatives helps set up the institution for success.

Organizational Support for Analytics

Organizational support is another challenge we observed while visiting institutions.

  • Staff (inclusive of academic and university/ college individuals) shared that they were particularly concerned with the impact on their current job requirements, roles, and workloads
  • Communication we received from all staff level roles was that a “top down” directive from leadership is necessary to properly implement learning analytics efforts

The following examples illustrate the types of leadership support challenges most
often expressed:

  • “I’m not doing anything until I’m told by leadership to do so” – This is a direct quote from one member of an IT group at an institution. He advised that he and his colleagues would not engage in anything new unless leadership told them it was important. His statement was made regardless of his personal opinion on whether or not learning analytics would be of benefit to the institution. Looking to leadership for the “OK” is very important at institutions, and not having a clear direction can make it difficult to navigate the leadership’s priorities.
  • “We already have so many things we are asked to do in a day, how can we possibly manage one more?” – Within all departments, there was concern about how to manage something else; another tool, another “thing.” One participant told us, “I have to spend 15 minutes searching for something and then [I] forget what I was looking for.” This was more common than one would like to think.

Institutions shared with us some ideas regarding potential solutions and recommendations that they feel would be beneficial:

  • “Single source of truth” – This can be both a technical and organizational solution. Institutions expressed that having one place to go for most, if not all, information would be the most effective way to mitigate the “one more thing to manage” concern. This could be a centralized data warehouse, a Learning Records Store, or a centralized place to house policies and procedures. For institutions, having one place to go to get the information needed is universally said to save time, energy, and effort. An individual at one institution said, “If we had one system it would be quicker, more efficient, and easier to find information and then you’d have more time to actually help students, rather than finding the information itself.”
  • Leadership buy-in is key – Those within the institution look to leadership to help guide overall strategic direction and vision. At some institutions we visited, the leadership was completely on board with the idea of implementing some sort of learning analytics solution. Others still needed convincing. One leader told us, “I see some of the overall benefits of learning analytics, but we have so many departments throughout the university that I’m not sure it would even work here.” The impact of unclear leadership buy-in upfront and in totality (among all leadership) transmits a sense that something is not a priority and does not need attention. Working with leadership to demonstrate the benefits of learning analytics, and how it can impact the “bottom line,” is something that is needed at the beginning and all throughout the initiative. As one senior leader told us, “I can understand the reluctance of my peers, as I know this will be a lot of work, take some time, and will result in some changes, but what I can’t understand is why anyone wouldn’t want to take that chance to help better our students and our institution as a whole. We have a duty to provide the best service possible and if this helps us do it, then we owe it to everyone to at least try it.”

We learned quite a bit from our journey across the UK, and we are excited to continue to share our findings. Please be on the look out for another article in April regarding what senior leadership needs to know about learning analytics, including the importance of information sharing, expectation setting, and collaborative thinking (a further extension on the discussion above).

Here’s to continuous growth and improvement!

By Niall Sclater

Niall Sclater is Consultant and Director at Sclater Digital Ltd and is currently carrying out work for Jisc in Learning Analytics.

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