online learning

Data-driven unsupervised clustering of online learner behaviour

The widespread adoption of online courses opens opportunities for analysing learner behaviour and optimising web-based learning adapted to observed usage. Here we introduce a mathematical framework for the analysis of time series of online learner engagement, which allows the identification of clusters of learners with similar online temporal behaviour directly from the raw data without prescribing a priori subjective reference behaviours.

The method uses a dynamic time warping kernel to create a pairwise similarity between time series of learner actions, and combines it with an unsupervised multiscale graph clustering algorithm to identify groups of learners with similar temporal behaviour. To showcase our approach, we analyse task completion data from a cohort of learners taking an online post-graduate degree at Imperial Business School. Our analysis reveals clusters of learners with statistically distinct patterns of engagement, from distributed to massed learning, with different levels of regularity, adherence to pre-planned course structure and task completion. The approach also reveals outlier learners with highly sporadic behaviour.

A posteriori comparison against student performance shows that, whereas high performing learners are spread across clusters with diverse temporal engagement, low performers are located significantly in the massed learning cluster, and our unsupervised clustering identifies low performers more accurately than common machine learning classification methods trained on temporal statistics of the data. Finally, we test the applicability of the method by analysing two additional datasets: a different cohort of the same course, and time series of different format from another university.

Written by Robert L. Peach, Sophia N. Yaliraki , David Lefevre and Mauricio Barahona.

Published 3 September 2019.