Smarter data

Photograph of Simon Buckingham Shum.

Simon Buckingham Shum. Photo supplied by S Buckingham Shum.

In summary: 
  • UTS's new Connected Intelligence Centre will harness data in new ways to assist student learning
  • Centre Director Simon Buckingham Shum sees exciting potential to collaborate with students and experts across the sector

“Everywhere we go, we’re increasingly leaving traces of our behaviour – a sort of digital shadow that reflects what’s going on in the physical world,” says Professor Simon Buckingham Shum.

For educators, he says, this represents an exciting opportunity. “The question is, ‘Can we use the technology to create more effective learners – not just people who can pass exams and master skills, but who are also keen on learning, able to be creative and curious?’”

Buckingham Shum is the Director of the newly established Connected Intelligence Centre – or CIC (‘kick’) – where he will lead UTS’s approach to data analytics.

His particular area is learning analytics, which aims to utilise data about learners and their contexts to optimise the student experience across the spectrum – from assisting students who may be struggling, to high achievers who could benefit from additional challenge.

It allows smarter use of digital information as a formative tool, engaging students to learn effectively throughout the course of their studies – and beyond.

“For instance, there’s now a whole armoury of technologies able to process language,” says Buckingham Shum. “This could enable personalised feedback on the rigour and relevance of student conversations.

“Knowing how to engage in a community’s discourse is part of what it means to become a professional. So how you engage in conversation and debate within your subjects is an important indicator of the progress you’re making as a student.”

Ensuring an ethical approach to data privacy is vital, and CIC will engage with the challenge of ensuring students can give ‘informed consent’ in the context of a fast-moving technological world.

Buckingham Shum sees potential to involve them in co-designing the new tools and technologies they’ll be asked to use.

“What would it mean to invite students into the conversation about how analytics will be used in their course? We want to create learners who take responsibility for their learning, and for whom analytics become a tool they trust.

“We all know if you give people technologies that are supposed to be tracking them, and they have no confidence in them, they’ll disengage from the system, or try to game it.”

Having worked at the Open University in the United Kingdom for nearly 19 years, Buckingham Shum was ready for a new context, and the fact many of the foremost practitioners in learning analytics are in Australia was a major attraction for him to come to UTS.

“Professor Shirley Alexander – who instigated CIC – is regarded internationally as one of the strategic thought leaders on the role of data analytics,” he says, “so when she opened the conversation about the new centre, it was very exciting. It was a great honour to be invited.”

He says, “There are many opportunities to cross-fertilise ideas and move the whole sector forward in a way that’s intelligent.”

Buckingham Shum emphasises the importance of applying technology strategically rather than allowing it to drive the agenda.  

“We have the opportunity to think deeply about the kinds of learning we care about, and figure out how to harness the technology to help us create that kind of learning – as opposed to analytics based merely on counting what computers find it easiest to count.”

To get a flavour of Professor Buckingham Shum’s work, check out his recent Valedictory Lecture to the UK Open University:

Photograph: supplied by Simon Buckingham Shum

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