Learning analytics and situation awareness

The following post is just a shallow airing some of my thoughts around how I see the body of literature around situation awareness fitting in with my learning analytics research and a current project. Like many other universities, we are currently working on a project that aims to draw upon learning analytics to help with student retention. The project provides teaching academics with a simple tool to aid with their awareness over their distance students by combing and presenting data from the learning management system and student information system.

In a recent paper we suggested that e-learning is a type of complex adaptive system (CAS). CAS are defined by John Holland as a network of systems that learn and adapt as they interact (J. Holland, 2006). Each agent or element within a CAS is nested within, and alongside other systems, evolving together as they interact (J. Holland, 2006). This means we cannot understand any of the agents or systems without reference to the others (Plsek & Greenhalgh, 2001). In other words, the whole represents more than just the sum of the parts. The agents interact and adapt and this results in emergent behavior (J. H. Holland, 1995; Plsek & Greenhalgh, 2001). Stock markets, traffic flow, ecosystems, cells are all examples of complex adaptive systems. From the perspective of learning analytics (LA), considering e-learning a CAS changes how we manage and monitor the system.

CAS are not systems where effect proportionally follows cause. Interventions within a CAS are likely to have diverse, far-reaching, unpredictable and non-linear effects (Shiell, Hawe, & Gold, 2008), known colloquially as the butterfly effect. Considering LA as something that results from the interactions occurring with a CAS enables us to evaluate and respond to the realities of the present as opposed to targeting an idealistic future state (Beer, Jones, & Clark, 2012). The key point here is the phrase “respond to the realities of the present”. It has been said that LA can improve learning, teaching and student success through an awareness of patterns within the data (Campbell, Oblinger, & DeBlois, 2007) and it has also been said that teachers have the right mix of proximity to, and understanding of the learning and teaching context (Beer et al., 2012). To me (based on a CAS model) this would suggest that LA engage with teachers, within their learning and teaching contexts, during the teaching term and this is where I believe that the body of knowledge around situation awareness (SA) might help.

SA is a concept that describes how operators in complex systems develop and maintain a sufficient awareness of ‘what is going on’ in order to perform tasks successfully (Mica R. Endsley, 1995). While the body of research around SA comes from the human factors arena (factories, aircraft and military operations), it touches on a problem that is probably quite familiar to folk involved with e-learning. The problem is not a lack of information, but finding the information we need when, and where we need it (Mica R Endsley, 2001). There has been a staggering amount (and depth) of research within human factors around how to contextually present information to operators performing within complex systems. Although failures of situation awareness within an e-learning setting is not likely to have the dramatic consequences we might associate with industry or aviation, I wonder if it can help us with the provision of information to when and where academics might need it?  Thoughts?


Beer, C., Jones, D., & Clark, D. (2012). Analytics and complexity: Learning and leading for the future. Paper presented at the ASCILITE2012 Future challenges, sustainable futures, Wellingtone, New Zealand.

Campbell, J. P., Oblinger, D. G., & DeBlois, P. B. (2007). Academic Analytics. Educause Review(July/August 2007).

Endsley, M. R. (1995). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors, 37(1), 32-64. doi: 10.1518/001872095779049543

Endsley, M. R. (2001). Designing for situation awareness in complex systems. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on symbiosis of humans, artifacts and environment.

Holland, J. (2006). Studying Complex Adaptive Systems. Journal of Systems Science and Complexity, 19(1), 1-8. doi: 10.1007/s11424-006-0001-z

Holland, J. H. (1995). Hidden order : how adaptation builds complexity / John H. Holland: Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley, c1995.

Plsek, P. E., & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Complexity science: The challenge of complexity in health care. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 323(7313), 625-628.

Shiell, A., Hawe, P., & Gold, L. (2008). Complex interventions or complex systems? Implications for health economic evaluation. BMJ, 336(7656), 1281-1283.



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