Fearless Sifting and Winnowing
For the past three years, a black-and-white copy of a text with a fading highlighted section has been unceremoniously taped to my office wall in Indianapolis. The copy is page 184 of Amy Gutmann's (1999) book Democratic Education, wherein the section reads:
Universities serve democracies best when they try to establish an environment conducive to creating knowledge that is not immediately useful, appreciating ideas that are not presently popular, and rewarding people who are—and are likely to continue to be—intellectually but not necessarily economically productive.
For me, it has been a reminder that the value of my scholarly efforts—and that of my colleagues—should not be determined solely by their ability (or lack thereof) to generate grant funding. Try as I might to will this belief into being, it is a difficult struggle when one is enmeshed in the neoliberal academic complex. As I reflect on the articles included in this issue of Library Trends, I see Gutmann's words in a different light.
In arguing that democracies need all sorts of knowledge, even that which has no clear utility or market value, Gutmann is indirectly proffering that old adage of my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, about "continual and fearless sifting and winnowing." What we teach, what students learn, and the ends to which both of these things are directed should not be constrained by the politics of the day and the dominant social milieu. That which is valuable is that which leads to truth, and by extension the health of a democracy.
In order to accomplish these lofty goals, higher education institutions must develop infrastructures and support the conditions necessary to pursue thought unencumbered by undue influence. Such things are inherently [End Page 1] messy and always evolving, but the aims they support are worthwhile. So, when new sociotechnical systems emerge that seem at first blush to be in stark contrast to intellectual freedom or contravene students' educational interests, the moment signals a time for reflection and sharp, critical analysis. With learning analytics, that moment has come.
The Library Learning Analytics Movement
Learning analytics is the "measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs" (Siemens 2012, 4). If the academic library is the "most important observation post" (Duderstadt 2009, 220) for understanding how students learn, then it follows that libraries in colleges and universities should be a primary focus of data mining and analysis initiatives in higher education. Significant efforts are underway to enable libraries to make visible their user data; data that was at one time purposefully destroyed is now full of analytic possibilities (see Oakleaf 2018).
The efficacy of learning analytics is premised on an institution's ability to identify, aggregate, and manage a wide variety and increasingly large volume of data about students, much of which needs to be identifiable in order to develop personalized, just-in-time learning interventions. So, in the fashion of other big data initiatives, institutions are beginning to dredge their information systems for student behaviors, personal information, and communications, all of which hold potential to reveal how students learn and uncover structural impediments to learning. Integration of library data in learning analytics is fledgling at best, but there are growing calls for such activity to increase, especially to enhance a library's ability to prove their resource expenditures and demonstrate alignment with wider institutional goals (e.g., improve learning outcomes, decrease costs, etc.) (see Connaway et al. 2017).
Addressing the Emerging Harms
It is enticing to assume good things about library participation in learning analytics. The profession wants to provide just the right information at just the right time, and professional librarians want that information to aid students as they develop personally, academically, and professionally. Moreover, the profession seeks to further cement its position as a key player in the educational experience, and learning analytics may enable librarians to make stronger claims about their pivotal role once they gain access to new sources...