The caterpillar and the crocodile: analytics and wellbeing

Samantha Ahern, Learning Digital Project Officer, UCL, explores the digital future of wellbeing

This year’s free Connect More events by Jisc have kicked-off with an event in Scotland, providing the opportunity for teachers, librarians and advisers in UK higher and further education to explore how to thrive in a digital world. At their core, each event is about people, from staff to students, and the relationship between education and technology.

At the Scotland event, I spoke about learning analytics and student wellbeing. Think back to your childhood, remember the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland? Academics and HE organisations shouldn’t be like the caterpillar, asking: “Who are you?” We should know who our students are.

The caterpillar tells the tale of a crocodile, who in this analogy, is big data or artificial intelligence. It’s shiny and beguiling, but like the little crocodile in the poem it will welcome us, like little fishes, in with gently smiling jaws – it could be ineffective, and might perpetuate or exacerbate existing issues, or potentially cause more. That is why it needs to be regulated and carefully employed in education. Saying all this, it could be a wonderful tool if used well. The last few years have seen a notable national rise in awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues, from media coverage to campaigns, the discussion is very much alive, which is no bad thing. At the same time questions have been raised about the quality of support for students in our higher education institutions, with many students complaining about the poor quality of personal tutoring and the lack of information their tutors have about them, the course they are studying, and their progress.

The last few years have seen a notable national rise in awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues, from media coverage to campaigns

A 2015 National Union of Students (NUS) survey found that eight out of 10 students (78%) said they experienced mental health issues in the last year, and 40% noted feeling nervous about the support they would receive from their institution. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, has stated: “We are obsessed by reactive policy once students hit the bottom of the waterfall; we need to be putting preventative policies in place to prevent them ever tipping over the edge,” this is where I believe learning analytics has a role to play.

Much of the data that would be useful in assisting the role of the personal tutor, is also useful in the analysis and improvement of teaching and learning. Learning analytics is defined as “…the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs.” (Siemens & Gasevic, 2012). In the emerging field of learning analytics, such as the service Jisc are offering, data is being leveraged predominantly with the aim of improving student retention and enhancing the student experience.

If we can see from our systems that a student is over-engaging early in a module compared to their peers, should we not be having pro-active discussions with the student? Similarly, if we are aware that student has a deadline cluster, should we not have a discussion with them a few weeks beforehand to ensure that they have a plan and are on track, especially first-year undergraduates?

There is, of course, much debate around the ethical implications of learning analytics and the data protection and privacy rights of students. Due to the sensitive nature of mental health and the potential fatal consequences of mental ill-health this is further complicated. Research has shown that students have emotive responses to learning analytics dashboards, and the strength and nature of these reactions varies at the individual level (Bennett, 2018). This suggests that students will need guidance in interpreting and responding to any analytics, and that this should be a mediated discussion.

Due to the scale of the mental wellbeing issue within our institutions and the duty of care to our students, should these outweigh other concerns? I believe so.

Learn more about Jisc’s learning analytics service at

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?