68% of Statistics Are Meaningless, D2L Edition

Two years ago, I wrote about how D2L’s analytics package looked serious and potentially ground-breaking, but that there were serious architectural issues with the underlying platform that were preventing the product from working properly for customers. Since then, we’ve been looking for signs that the company has dealt with these issues and is ready to deliver something interesting and powerful. And what we’ve seen is…uh…

…uh…

Well, the silence has ended. I didn’t get to go to FUSION this year, but I did look at the highlights of the analytics announcements, and they were…

…they were…

OK, I’ll be honest. They were incredibly disappointing in almost every way possible, and good examples of a really bad pattern of hype and misdirection that we’ve been seeing from D2L lately.

You can see a presentation of the “NEW Brightspace Insights(TM) Analytics Suite” here. I would embed the video for you but, naturally, D2L uses a custom player from which they have apparently stripped embedding capabilities. Anyway, one of the first things we learn from the talk is that, with their new, space-age, cold-fusion-powered platform, they “deliver the data to you 20 times faster than before.” Wow! Twenty times faster?! That’s…like…they’re giving us the data even before the students click or something. THEY ARE READING THE STUDENTS’ MINDS!

Uh, no. Not really.

A little later on in the presentation, if you listen closely, you’ll learn that D2L was running a batch process to update the data once every 24 hours. Now, two years after announcing their supposed breakthrough data analytics platform, they are proud to tell us that they can run a batch process every hour. As I write this, I am looking at my real-time analytics feed on my blog, watching people come and go. Which I’ve had for a while. For free. Of course, saying it that way, a batch process every hour, doesn’t sound quite as awesome as

TWENTY TIMES FASTER!!!!!

So they go with that.

There was an honest way in which they could have made the announcement and still sounded great. They could have said something like this:

You know, when LMSs were first developed, nobody was really thinking about analytics, and the technology to do analytics well really wasn’t at a level where it was practical for education anyway. Times have changed, and so we have had to rebuild Brightspace from the inside out to accommodate this new world. This is an ongoing process, but we’re here to announce a milestone. By being able to deliver you regular, intra-day updates, we can now make a big difference in their value to you. You can respond more quickly to student needs. We are going to show you a few examples of it today, but the bigger deal is that we have this new structural capability that will enable us to provide you with more timely analytics as we go.

That’s not a whole lot different in substance than what they actually said. And they really needed to communicate in a hype-free way, because what was the example that they gave for this blazing fast analytics capability? Why, the ability to see if students had watched a video.

Really. That was it.

Now, here again, D2L could have scored real points for this incredibly underwhelming example if they had talked honestly about Caliper and its role in this demo. The big deal here is that they are getting analytics not from Brightspace but from a third-party tool (Kaltura) using IMS Caliper. Regular readers know that I am a big fan of the standard-in-development. I think it’s fantastic that an LMS company has made an early commitment to implement the standard and is pushing it hard as differentiator. That can make the difference between a standard getting traction or remaining an academic exercise. How does D2L position this move? From their announcement:

With our previous analytics products, D2L clients received information on student success even before they took their first test. This has helped them improve student success in many ways, but the data is limited to Brightspace tools. The new Brightspace Insights is able to aggregate student data, leveraging IMS Caliper data, across a wide variety of learning tools within an institution’s technology ecosystem.

We’ve seen explosive growth in the use of external learning tools hooked into Brightspace over the past eighteen months. In fact, we are trending toward 200% growth over 2014. [Emphasis added.] That’s a lot of missing data.

This helps create a more complete view of the student. All of their progress and experiences are captured and delivered through high performance reports, comprehensive data visualizations, and predictive analytics.

Let’s think about an example like a student’s experiences with publisher content and applications. Until now, Brightspace was able to capture final grades but wouldn’t track things like practice quizzes or other assessments a student has taken. It wouldn’t know if a student didn’t get past the table of contents in a digital textbook. Now, the new Brightspace Insights captures all of this data and creates a more complete, living, breathing view of a student’s performance.

This is a big milestone for edtech. No other LMS provider is able to capture data across the learning technology ecosystem like this. [Emphasis added.]

I have no problem with D2L crowing about being early to market with a Caliper implementation. But let’s look at how they positioned it. First, they talked about 200% growth in use of external learning tools in 2015. But what does that mean? Going from one tool to three tools? And what kind of tools are they? And what do we know about how they are being used? OK, on that last question, maybe analytics are needed to answer it. But the point is that D2L has a pattern of punctuating every announcement or talk with an impressive-sounding but meaningless statistic to emphasize how awesome they are. Phil recently caught John Baker using…questionable retention statistics in a speech he gave. In that case, the problem wasn’t that the statistic itself was meaningless but rather that there was no reason to believe that D2L had anything to do with the improvement in the case being cited. And then there’s the slight-of-hand that Phil just called out regarding their LeaP marketing. It’s not as bad as some of the other examples, in my opinion, but still disturbingly consistent with the pattern we are seeing. I am starting to suspect that somebody in the company literally made a rule: Every talk or announcement must have a statistic in it. Doesn’t matter what the statistic is, or whether it means anything. Make one up if you have to, but get it in there.

But back to analytics. The more egregious claim in the quote above is that “no other LMS provider is able to capture data across the learning technology like this [example that we just gave],” because D2L can’t either yet. They have implemented a pre-final draft of a standard which requires both sides to implement in order for it to work. I don’t know of any publishers who have announced they are ready to provide data in the way described in D2L’s example. In fact, there are darned few app providers of any kind who are there yet. (Apparently, Kaltura is one of them.) Again, this could have been presented honestly in a way that made D2L look fantastic. Implementing first puts them in a leadership position, even if that leadership will take a while to pay practical dividends for the customer. But they went for hype instead.

I can’t remember the last time I read one of D2L’s announcements without rolling my eyes. I used to have respect for the company, but now I have to make a conscious effort not to dismiss any of their pronouncements out-of-hand. Not because I think it’s impossible that they might be doing good work, but because they force me to dive into a mountain of horseshit in the hopes of finding a nugget of gold at the bottom. Every. Single. Time. I’m not sure how much of the problem is that they have decided that they need to be disingenuous because they are under threat from Instructure or under pressure from investors and how much of it is that they are genuinely deluding themselves. Sadly, there have been some signs that at least part of the problem is the latter situation, which is a lot harder to fix. But there is also a fundamental dishonesty in the way that these statistics have been presented.

I don’t like writing this harshly about a company—particularly one that I have had reason to praise highly in the past. I don’t do it very often. But enough is enough already.

 

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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5 Responses to 68% of Statistics Are Meaningless, D2L Edition

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  2. sneezypb says:

    Had to share this one at work. The first half of the next to last paragraph made me laugh so hard. It was where I was two years ago. And given at the time I worked on both Brightspace and Insights it was not good for either me or my employer.

  3. Customer says:

    A very insightful analysis. D2L is doing a lot of positioning these days and it’s unfortunate that they chose not to position things accurately or treat their customers with the respect and understanding that we deserve. This year at Fusion we saw a lot fewer people yet they spent lavishly on parties and other incidentals – using our professional development funds to pay for table services is insulting and disrespectful to our us and our goals. Being duplicitous about what they deliver and when we have unfortunately grown used to. How did they get so far off track in their understanding of what is really important? At one time D2L was praised for being the anti-Blackboard – friendly, honest and down to earth. I would never use these words to describe them today.

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