Why “Learning Informatics”?

One of the privileges of becoming a professor is to choose your title. Exciting but a challenge: encapsulate everything you’re passionate about in just a few words, which aren’t going to date too fast as thinking moves on.

I thought hard about this in 2014 when I was at The Open University UK. Learning Analytics was the hot new thing, but who knew how that was going to pan out? (very well as it happens!). But it  seemed too early to nail all my colours to this mast.

There was a bigger picture, but what was its name? My home-base was Human-Computer Interaction, with the ACM CHI and BCS HCI conferences my stamping ground as a PhD student and early postdoc. But I’d moved into a range of other communities since, and at the OU the focus was now firmly on the role of knowledge media in shaping the future of learning. Human-Centred Computing was too broad, so how about Human-Centred Educational Technologies? Knowledge Media? Learning Technologies? 

I reflected on which movements in HCI best expressed the richness of perspective that I found so exciting. And there it was staring me in the face: Informatics. 

That definition comes from Kristen Nygaard‘s invited address to the 1986 World Computer Congress, entitled Program Development as a Social Activity. Informatics was a longstanding term in Europe, and was spreading in the US and elsewhere (perhaps in part as an extension of the move to creating broad, rich iSchools — someone more familiar than me with that history might comment on this).

So, I married Learning + Informatics. With the launch last year of the Learning Informatics Lab at University of Minnesota, I was delighted to be invited by Bodong Chen to give this talk (but sadly that trip was cancelled). However, we finally put that right this week, and here it is: why in my view Learning Informatics offers the depth and breadth we need to design learning analytics and AI in truly human-centred ways.

Dedicated to the extraordinary life and work of Kristen Nygaard! You will see in his reflections on the shaping of participatory design methods with trades unions and management, and definition of informatics, prescient ideas that are as vital now as then.

Learning Informatics: AI • Analytics • Accountability • Agency

Slides [pdf]

Abstract: “Health Informatics”. “Urban Informatics”. “Social Informatics”. Informatics offers systemic ways of analyzing and designing the interaction of natural and artificial information processing systems. In the context of education, I will describe some Learning Informatics lenses and practices which we have developed for co-designing analytics and AI with educators and students. We have a particular focus on closing the feedback loop to equip learners with competencies to navigate a complex, uncertain future, such as critical thinking, professional reflection and teamwork. En route, we will touch on how we build educators’ trust in novel tools, our design philosophy of “embracing imperfection” in machine intelligence, and the ways that these infrastructures embody values. Speaking from the perspective of leading an institutional innovation centre in learning analytics, I hope that our experiences spark productive reflection around as the UMN Learning Informatics Lab builds its program.

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