ENGAGING LEARNING ANALYTICS IN MOOCS: THE GOOD, THE BAD,
AND THE UGLY
Mohammad Khalil, Behnam Taraghi & Martin Ebner
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology (Austria)
Learning Analytics is an emerging field in the vast areas of Educational Technology and Technology
Enhanced Learning (TEL). It provides tools and techniques that offer researchers the ability to analyze,
study, and benchmark institutions, learners and teachers as well as online learning environments such as
MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are considered to be a very active and an innovative
form of bringing educational content to a broad community. Due to the reasons of being free and
accessible to the public, MOOCs attracted a large number of heterogeneous learners who differ in
education level, gender, and age. However, there are pressing demands to adjust the quality of the hosted
courses, as well as controlling the high dropout ratio and the lack of interaction. With the help of
Learning Analytics, it is possible to contain such issues. In this publication, we discuss the principles of
engaging Learning Analytics in MOOCs learning environments and review its potential and capabilities
(the good), constraints (the bad), and fallacy analytics (the ugly) based on our experience in last year's.
Keywords: Learning Analytics, MOOCs, pedagogy, potential, dilemma.
Since 2008, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have shown significance and potentiality
to scale education in distance learning environments. The benefits shine when thousands of students can
participate in a course that a normal classroom cannot hold. Due to many reasons of being free, available
to the public and require no predefined level of participation, MOOCs attracted a large number of learners
from all over the world regardless their educational background, gender or age. Institutions of Higher
Education (HE) start to think seriously of adopting MOOCs and make use of Open Educational Resources
(OER) principles. Comparatively, famous MOOC-platform such as Coursera was established by Stanford
University, and edX by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Both platforms provide
various courses to university students. Besides, MOOCs are not only preserved to university and college
participants, but also for primary school children, such as courses provided by the Austrian MOOC
provider, iMooX (www.imoox.at).
Typically, MOOCs are based on video lectures, multiple-choice quizzes or peer-review
assessments, discussion forums and documents (Khalil & Ebner, 2016c; Lackner, Ebner & Khalil, 2015).
Lessons are delivered on a weekly basis, and students commit to attend during the week. Additionally,
students can solve assignments and then share and discuss their views in forums or social media
networks. Further, teachers post questions and can communicate with students toward creating a domain
of presence (Khalil & Ebner, 2013). Nevertheless, frequent studies and reports complain about the low
completion rate, lack of interaction (Lackner, Ebner & Khalil, 2015), keeping the learners motivated,
engagement issues, and last but not least cheating and gaming the MOOC systems (Khalil & Ebner,
2015a; Khalil, Kastl & Ebner, 2016). As a result, mining student actions on distance learning
environments makes the job easier for educationists and researchers to maintain learner behaviors and
explain such concerns.
An inclusion and exploration of the term “Big Data” in the education field emerged recently.
Two main research communities oriented with respect to discovering new meaning of educational
datasets activities: the Educational Data Mining and the Learning Analytics communities (Papamitsiou &
Economides, 2014). In this paper, the focus will be mainly on Learning Analytics. We will discuss the
potential and capabilities as well as the constraints and the negative sides of the field with strong focus on
MOOCs. These criteria are established based on our experience in the last couple of years of
implementing Learning Analytics prototypes and strategies in the Austrian iMooX platform.
International Conference on Education and New Developments 2016
2. Learning analytics potentiality in MOOCs (the good)
Analyzing student data on online environments in order to reveal hidden patterns and discover
paradigms of activities is called Learning Analytics. In 2011, the Society for Learning Analytics and
Research defines it as “… the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and
their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environment in which
it occurs”. The needs for Learning Analytics emerged to optimize learning and benchmark the
learning environments. Khalil and Ebner (2015b, 2016c) discussed the various promises of employing
Learning Analytics in MOOCs platforms. Another recent study by Khalil and Ebner (2016b)
about surveying Learning Analytics techniques from 2013 to 2015 shows that the combination of
Learning Analytics and MOOCs related-topic scored the highest number of citations in Google Scholar
(http://scholar.google.com) during that period.
Online distance learning environments such as MOOCs provide a rich source of knowledge
mining opportunity. By logging mouse clicks, forums activity, quiz performance, login frequency, time
spent on tasks and tracking videos interactivity, Learning Analytics researchers can build an enormous
amount of data logs. This database of information, if interpreted appropriately, can help researchers from
diverse disciplines of computer science, pedagogy, statistics, and machine learning…etc., to intervene
directly toward student success. Benefits of Learning Analytics in MOOCs are limitless. In the following,
we list the primary benefits of applying Learning Analytics in MOOCs:
Prediction: One of the most popular objectives performed by both Learning Analytics and
Educational Data Mining. Techniques are used to predict when a participant is expected to drop from an
online course. This could be done by analyzing a student behavior, exam performance, and video skips.
Storing numerous records of previous students’ activities based on specific modules help researchers
predict the prospective action, such as dropping out of a course or detecting students at-risk. Additionally,
Learning Analytics is used in predicting performance and motivation (Edtstadler, Ebner & Ebner, 2015).
Further forecasting about video watching on a course and relative activity in discussion forums is feasible
to be investigated.
Recommendation: Actions on MOOC platforms can be mined for recommendation purposes.
An example is when a MOOC provider recommends learning materials to students based on their
previous registered courses. In addition, recommendations can be generated to suggest a student
answering a specific question in discussion forums.
Visualization: Through Learning Analytics, tracking previously mentioned actions creates a lot
of records. Visualizations can be presented to participants via dashboards. Verbert and her colleagues
(2014) discussed that dashboards support awareness, reflection and sense-making. On the other hand,
analyzing data through visualizing them into plots supports researchers to reveal patterns (Khalil &
Ebner, 2016c) and provides feedback and reflection to MOOC participants at the end.
Entertainment: Gaming tools were considered as a Learning Analytics technique in Khalil and
Ebner (2016b) work. The survey illustrates how gamification makes learning in MOOCs more
entertaining which results in an increased motivation and completion rate among students. Such tools can
be badges (Wüster & Ebner, 2016), reward points, progress bars or colorful gauges.
Benchmarking: Benchmarking is a learning process which evaluating courses, videos,
assignments, and MOOC platforms are attainable using Learning Analytics. Hence, we can identify
learning difficulties as well as weak points in the online courses or stalling segments in video lectures.
Accordingly, constructive feedback is generated which concludes into an enhanced educational system.
Personalization: Learners can shape their personal experience in a MOOC. Developers through
different types of Learning Analytics techniques (Khalil & Ebner, 2016b) can build a set of personalized
items in the MOOC platform. For example, a student can favorite a part of a video or bookmark an article
or a document. Further, (s)he can customize notifications and add annotations in videos.
Enhance Engagement: Engagement has recently been an attracting topic in MOOCs.
Employing Learning Analytics through data mining techniques such as clustering was used in (Kizilcec,
Piech & Schneider, 2013; Khalil, Kastl & Ebner, 2016). Expected results are grouping participants into a
subpopulation of students or classifying interactions in videos, assignments and quizzes for reasons of
future interventions in MOOC designs or studying the needs of the students’ catalogue.
Communication Information: Learning Analytics involves collecting data from sources and
processes them. It is further used to report information in a form of statistical analysis to different MOOC
stakeholders. Similar to web analytics, students can check their activities and review general statistics
using dashboards, for example. In addition, teachers and decision makers can build an overview about
MOOC using descriptive statistics.
Cost Saving: Since Learning Analytics provides tools of data analysis, it opens the doors for a
broad examination services which makes it possible to determine weak sections of a MOOC. Therefore,
decision makers can allocate resources effectively.
ISBN: 978-989-99389-8-4 © 2016
3. The negative side of learning analytics in MOOCs (the bad)
Despite the fact that Learning Analytics achieves several benefits when it is applied to education
data stream, rising constraints have been identified lately (Papamitsiou & Economides, 2014; Khalil &
Ebner, 2015b). The large-scale of data collection and processes drives Learning Analytics to questions
related to privacy and ethical issues. An atmosphere of uncertainty among practitioners of Learning
Analytics as well as decision makers decelerates its steep growth (Drachsler & Greller, 2016). Through
our experience, we encourage educational organizations to adopt the security model CIA, which stands
for Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability. In this section, we list major concerns of implementing
Learning Analytics in MOOC platforms:
Security: The stored records of students in databases that belong to Learning Analytics
applications represent the heart of their private information. Thus, maintaining database configuration is
not always considered by organizations. As a result, breaches of confidential information are possible to
Privacy: Learning Analytics can reveal personal information of learners. MOOC datasets may
hold sensitive information such as emails, names or addresses. Privacy has been considered as a threat in
Learning Analytics (Papamitsiou & Economides, 2014) and as a constraint (Khalil & Ebner, 2015b).
Different solutions can be proposed such as anonymization approach (Khalil & Ebner, 2016a),
encryption, or increasing restrictions.
Ownership: Questions related to “who owns the analyzed data of MOOCs” can emerge
anytime. Participants like to keep their information confidential, but at the same time, consent policy is
essential to ensure transparency. Further, MOOC providers are encouraged to delete or de-identify
personal information of their participants.
Consent: Related to ownership of data. Not every MOOC provider clearly declares the usage
of students’ data. Policies with legislation frameworks should include rules of a collection of personal
information and a description of information usage, such as research purposes or third party information
Transparency: Secret processes can hide unfair decision making when analytics is applied on
educational datasets (Sclater, 2014). By the same token, when Learning Analytics is applied on MOOCs,
providers need to disclose their approach to collecting, analyzing and using of participants’ data. At the
same time, a point of balance should be made when the Learning Analytics algorithms or tools are
proprietary. Sclater argued different code of practices regarding transparency.
Storage: As long as MOOCs are open to the public, a single course can attract thousands of
students. Storing big data could be costly, overloaded, and complex as well as hard to manage.
Furthermore, according to the European Directive 95/46/EC1, personal data needs to be stored no longer
4. The dark side of learning analytics in MOOCs (the ugly)
Looking for the quality of data is an important factor in Learning Analytics. However, when data
records have incomplete segments or polluted information, then Learning Analytics is negatively
affected. Moreover, getting a holistic overview of students in online courses cannot only be harvested
through their left traces on MOOCs. Are there any guarantees of the Learning Analytics results? What
about the accuracy? In this section, we summarize some of the worst-case results that Learning Analytics
can produce by employing it in MOOCs.
False Positives: Making decisions, either by analysts or directors, based on a small subset of
data could lead to fast judgments and hence trigger “false positives”. Consequently, the accuracy of any
forthcoming decision in a MOOC system will be influenced. For instance, if a group of students were
“gaming the system” and an analyst builds a prediction model for all students based on MOOC indicators
fulfillment, then a false positive action is triggered. As a matter of fact, Learning Analytics is not only
based on numbers and statistics. Judgments and opinions of researchers play a major role. We always see
flounce on MOOCs discussion forums activity and its correlation with performance. Some researchers
approved that more social activity in forums is reflected positively on performance while others go
against this theory. In the light of that, Learning Analytics is not always accurate.
Fallacy Analytics: Analytics could fail and thus, mistaken interventions or predictions occur.
Failures could happen during the main processes of Learning Analytics cycle. Wrong actions in collecting
data from MOOCs, errors in processing or filtering and mistaken interpretation of data are possible
scenarios of fallacy analytics. Additionally, presenting the results through visualizations might also be
within the same page. Visualizations are a great way to report information, but playing with scales or
1http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31995L0046:en:HTML (last visited: March, 2016)
International Conference on Education and New Developments 2016
using 3D figures might be tricky to the end user (student, teacher, decision maker). Fallacy analytics may
be accidental and not intentional; however, using interpreted data based on fallacy analytics can be
dangerous to different stakeholders and uneconomical to the MOOC business. Fallacy analytics through
misuse of statistics as a method of Learning Analytics corrupts and pollutes research records as well as
wastes the time and energy of other researchers (Gardenier & Resnik, 2002).
Bias: Learning Analytics can show significant results of prediction and recommendation. It
can also prove hypotheses such as the relation between activity in discussion forums and performance or
watching videos and passing MOOCs. Collected data “could feel” that, but this actually returns to the
intention desire of the researcher or decision maker. The bias towards a certain hypothesis and the inner
determination of proving a theory of students’ data leads to biased Learning Analytics.
Meaningful data: Papamitsiou and Economides (2014) mentioned that Learning Analytics
mostly uses quantitative research results. Qualitative methods have not yet shown significant results.
Learning Analytics can be ineffective and waste of efforts if meaningful data is hard to extract. Dringus
(2012) argued two main points regarding meaningful data in Learning Analytics: 1) if the data collected
has no impact on improving or changing education. 2) if the data has no meaningful evidence such as lack
of clarity about what to measure to get meaningful information.
Learning Analytics provides various tools and to optimize learning. In this paper, we reviewed
the principles of engaging Learning Analytics in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). We discussed
the capabilities (the good), the dilemmas (the bad) and the out of the bound situations (the ugly).
Figure 1. The advantages and disadvantages of Learning Analytics in MOOCs
Figure 1 summarizes our results. Generally speaking, MOOCs and Learning Analytics imply
high potentiality. Nevertheless, a code of practice should be considered by all stakeholders in order to
carry out the optimum outcomes.
Drachsler, H. & Greller, W. (2016). Privacy and Learning Analytics – it’s a DELICATE issue. In
Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Learning Analytics and Knowledge
(LAK16’), Edinburgh, United Kingdom. ACM.
Dringus, L. P. (2012). Learning Analytics Considered Harmful. Journal of Asynchronous Learning
Networks, 16(3), (pp. 87-100).
Edtstadler, K., Ebner, M., Ebner, M. (2015). Improved German Spelling Acquisition through Learning
Analytics. eLearning Papers, 45, (pp. 17-28).
ISBN: 978-989-99389-8-4 © 2016
Gardenier, J., & Resnik, D. (2002). The misuse of statistics: concepts, tools, and a research agenda.
Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance, 9(2), (pp. 65-74).
Khalil, H., & Ebner, M. (2013). Interaction Possibilities in MOOCs–How Do They Actually Happen. In
International Conference on Higher Education Development (pp. 1-24).
Khalil, M., & Ebner, M. (2015a). A STEM MOOC for school children—What does Learning Analytics
tell us?. In Proceedings of 2015 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning
(ICL). (pp. 1217-1221). IEEE.
Khalil, M., & Ebner, M. (2015b). Learning Analytics: Principles and Constraints. In Proceedings of
World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications
Khalil, M., & Ebner, M. (2016a). De-Identification in Learning Analytics. Journal of Learning Analytics,
Khalil, M., & Ebner, M. (2016b). What is Learning Analytics about? A Survey of Different Methods
Used in 2013-2015. In proceeding of the 8th e-Learning Excellence Conference. Dubai, UAE.
Khalil, M. & Ebner, M. (2016c). What Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Stakeholders Can Learn
from Learning Analytics?. Learning, Design, and Technology: An International Compendium of
Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Springer.
Khalil, M., Kastl, C., & Ebner, M. (2016). Portraying MOOCs Learners: a Clustering Experience Using
Learning Analytics. In Proceedings of the European Stakeholder Summit on experiences and best
practices in and around MOOCs (EMOOCs 2016). Khalil, M., Ebner, M., Kopp, M., Lorenz, A. &
Kalz. M. (Eds.). BookOnDemand, Norderstedt. (pp. 265-278).
Kizilcec, R. F., Piech, C., & Schneider, E. (2013). Deconstructing disengagement: analyzing learner
subpopulations in massive open online courses. In Proceedings of the third international
conference on Learning Analytics and knowledge (pp. 170-179). ACM.
Lackner, E., Ebner, M., & Khalil, M. (2015). MOOCs as granular systems: design patterns to foster
participant activity. eLearning Papers, 42, (pp. 28-37).
Papamitsiou, Z. K., & Economides, A. A. (2014). Learning Analytics and Educational Data Mining in
Practice: A Systematic Literature Review of Empirical Evidence. Educational Technology &
Society, 17(4), (pp. 49-64).
Sclater, N. (2014). Code of practice for Learning Analytics: A literature review of the ethical and
legal issues. Available at: http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/5661/1/Learning_Analytics_A-
Verbert, K., Govaerts, S., Duval, E., Santos, J. L., Van Assche, F., Parra, G., & Klerkx, J. (2014).
Learning dashboards: an overview and future research opportunities. Personal and Ubiquitous
Computing, 18(6), (pp. 1499-1514).
Wüster, M. & Ebner, M. (2016). How to integrate and automatically issue Open Badges in MOOC
platforms. In Proceedings of the European Stakeholder Summit on experiences and best practices
in and around MOOCs (EMOOCs 2016). Khalil, M., Ebner, M., Kopp, M., Lorenz, A. & Kalz. M.
(Eds.). BookOnDemand, Norderstedt, (pp. 279–286).
International Conference on Education and New Developments 2016