A Glasgow University team aims to develop "data mining" techniques to assess whether huge investments in distance learning are paying off, writes Olga Wojtas.
Glasgow argues that while millions of pounds are being spent on installing networks and computers, training teachers and developing software for online education, little is being done to check how well it works.
The Teachers' and Learners' Collaborascope (TLC) project is now developing management tools for analysing and evaluating online education. Using the potential of network technology, it will construct databases that can be data mined by researchers, managers and politicians.
Project director Malcolm Atkinson, of Glasgow's department of computing science, said: "Compare commercial and educational practice and you will understand the motivation for our research."
The majority of large commercial companies monitored the fine detail of their business, Professor Atkinson said, with retailers inputting every item of their till transactions from across the country into databases. "They then perform data mining to measure their performance, detect anomalies and react quickly."
One brewery tested the value of a television advert by its impact on sales, and pulled the advert immediately when it discovered it had not had the impact expected, saving millions of pounds. Another retailer saved money by cancelling orders after early detection of a fall in demand for a line that had been popular in the run-up to Christmas.
The Pounds 150,000 TLC project brings together computer scientists, with expertise in data mining, interaction techniques and data storage technologies, and educationists who know what information teachers would need.
Research director Michelle Montgomery Masters said: "The TLC project is not trying to reinvent the wheel and produce another online learning environment. Instead, we are building tools that will work in collaboration with existing learning environments and provide teachers and students with valuable information about the learning environment."
The motivation for the project comes from studies of large-scale "technology in education" projects, which report little impact on higher education and blame this on the lack of evaluation. The TLC project aims to provide detailed tracking of student progress, logging every interaction with the system, down to every keyboard key struck. This will allow researchers to analyse trends and learning patterns, as well as exploring areas such as student learning styles.