A little about nudges, cycles and the IRAC framework

One of the key characteristics of the EASI system is its ability to facilitate ‘nudges’. These nudges are small interventions conducted with students, students who are potentially struggling with their studies during the term. The nudge might take the form of an email to an individual or a mail-merge for a personalized message to multiple students. EASI allows academic staff to quickly identify students who might be struggling at any point during the term, and facilitates the execution of nudges so as to prompt students into re-engaging.


In a mechanical or simple system the response to a perturbation will generally be fairly easy to figure out as the results are determined by the perturbation. If a block of wood is nudged, knowledge of the conditions of the nudge (force, shape, mass, friction etcetera) is sufficient to both predict the result and explain the result (Davis & Sumara, 2006). The same is true for more complicated systems such as computers, mechanical and electrical systems. But such is not the case for complex systems. If you nudge a dog, the result will have nothing to do with Newtonian mechanics. The result in this case will be determined by the dog’s biological and experiential constitution. Humans are even more complex in this regard, as they have a broader repertoire of possible responses to the nudge (Davis & Sumara, 2006).

So the result arising from an action taken, an action based upon learning analytics provided information, is unpredictable. To me, this appears to suggest that a cyclical process is required for learning analytics. At least for learning analytics aimed at conducting interventions with ‘at risk’ students. There are some things to think about here with regards to IRAC framework. IRAC is a framework:

“that can be used to scaffold analysis of the complex array of, often competing, considerations associated with the institutional implementation of learning analytics” (Jones, Beer, & Clark, 2013).

The four components of the IRAC framework are:

  • Information – Is all the relevant and only the relevant information available?
  • Representation – Does the representation of the information aid the task being undertaken?
  • Affordances – Are their appropriate affordances for action?
  • Change – How will the information, its representation and affordances be changed or evolve?

One thing I think that we will need to explore further with regards to the IRAC framework is that it is a cycle. And I doubt that it is just a cycle with regards to the affordances part of the framework as the unpredictability of responses to nudges might indicate. The act of consuming analytics information even without any actions still has the potential to contribute to change in unpredictable ways. This has the potential to change the purpose or task that learning analytics was designed to address.



Davis, B., & Sumara, D. J. (2006). Complexity and education: Inquiries into learning, teaching, and research: Psychology Press.

Jones, D., Beer, C., & Clark, D. (2013). The IRAC framework: Locating the performance zone for learning analytics. Paper presented at the Electric Dreams., Sydney. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/sydney13/program/papers/Jones.pdf


7 thoughts on “A little about nudges, cycles and the IRAC framework”

  1. First,a common on IRAC being cyclical. For me the presence of “change” at the end of the acronym implicitly suggests an on-going cycle.
    Information – You identify the information and analysis you can do on that information. Address questions of privacy, ethics etc.
    Representation – You figure out how to effectively represent that information and analysis to the people you’re providing it to.
    Affordances – You implement/provide functionality that helps people do stuff with the representation/information. And the notion of affordances (defined a particular way) captures a lot about the contextual nature of affordances (have to blog about that).
    Change – based on what you’ve done and use of the what you’ve done, what can/should you change. i.e. which of the above steps are you going to cycle back to. And once you cycle back to change that, you generate new insights and have to cycle back again and change something else.

  2. I like the wood, electrical system, and dog analogy. A good first step in helping people understand. I’m thinking how I might adapt that as lecture demonstration.

    But I also think it misses some of the important aspects of a complex system. The “wood” and “dog” are both – at least to most people – not systems. They are seen as single entities. I think you expand on this a little with the mention of the dog’s experiences etc, but that’s still a fairly opaque concept to a lot of people.

    Sorry, don’t have a solution. Best I can do is perhaps the idea of giving medicine to the dog or a human being. The idea that our body is a much more complex system than we think. Even medical science made mistakes – in the not to distant past – assuming that the body was more mechanical/ordered that it really is e.g. recent findings about the role of gut bacteria etc.

    1. I’ve been thinking about it like this. When you nudge an animal, the result is unpredictable for that particular instance although across large sample sizes you can determine probabilities. I am thinking that the same phenomena applies when someone is presented with a representation of information. How they internalize and respond is largely unpredictable. The action they take in response, is part of their sensemaking cycle.

      I do get your point about folk not seeing a dog as a complex system, but in reality, it is. The dog’s response to a ‘nudge’ will depend on a whole range of factors such as temperament, mood, temperature and the relationship to the bugger nudging them. Not necessarily easy to explain in a PP slide though.

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