Invisible learning, untrackable learning, and hidden learning environments

One of the chapters in my forthcoming book on online learners’ experiences is called The Learner Who “Listened.” It shares the story of an individual who participated in a course in a sort of solitary way, participating in the course without posting on any of the discussion boards, without being visible to the mechanisms developed to encourage participation. Let me paraphrase. She participated – by reading, thinking, watching – but this kind of participation is not typically deemed participatory. The pejorative label typically used to describe this kind of participation is “lurking.”

And even though some learning analytics companies and researchers want you to believe that “we can see everything the students do,” we can’t. In past work (pre-print here), we showed that learners engage with courses in ways that are invisible to instructors and researchers. Even if we could “see everything the students do,” that idea, and the practices that emanate from it, are dangerous and insidious.

I was reminded of this chapter this morning, while reading Clint’s post on untrackable learning in connection to conversations at ALT-C around “invisible learning environments” (Donna’s post here, Anne-Marie’s post here). There are activities that students engage in that should remain invisible – invisible to the instructor, invisible to the platforms that track them, invisible to the institution.


New semester, new assignments


The premise of my upcoming book


  1. You’re missing the next step – remotely activating the webcam to document what students are doing – feeding the video through computer vision systems to track attention, emotion, activity. We just need more data! Also, here is a (very expensive) platform that will get you that data so that you can track everything!


    • If I am the instructor, will I also get an app on my phone to buzz when my students’ attention falls below 65%?

      • The upgraded device is being produced by TASER/Axon, and will notify students of their need to pay attention through the application of a gentle (but escalating in intensity after each deployment) electrochemical prompt. It will be managed via a cloud-based platform directly integrated into the classroom student analytics data feed.

        • Ela Castellanos Reyes

          As an online learner, this scares me a bit. I do believe that more ways of tracking student attention are valuable. However, to what extend is constant attention absolutely necessary? Aren’t we building a world of smiley and attentive faces with empty minds? I believe that students still have the right to choose what they want to pay attention and what they not.
          Yes, some things are invisible and maybe they should remain that way.

  2. This reminds me of similar critiques made of the Community of Inquiry framework research which relied heavily on (quantitative) content analysis of asynchronous discussion forums. When students and faculty were interviewed about their posts it became clear that there were many layers of negotiation behind the posts and what you see doesn’t tell the whole story. I often think of this when confronted with arguments for some kinds of learning analytics.

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