Tools of the Trade | November / December 2018

Tracking the effectiveness of online education, benchmarking employee competencies, and providing instructors with more data to evaluate student learning.


Researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, have developed a way to track the effectiveness of online learning programs, speaker presentations, and websites. The team developed an algorithm that sorts digital data and formats it into a two-dimensional time-and-space heat map.

The algorithm takes the date and IP address information and transforms it into a data set that can be used by an image program to create the heat map. The map is a grid of colored boxes, which visually show information that occurs at specific times and locations. Educators could refer to the heat map and data information to determine if online lectures or supplemental materials are being used in classrooms. Speakers could use the technology to see if people think their work is valuable enough to download. Businesses could apply the technology to track website effectiveness.

The technology allows “organizations and businesses to quickly recognize behavioral patterns and trends in the data,” says Dwight McKay, senior data science engineer for information technology.

Researchers began developing the technology for Purdue’s Network for Computational Nanotechnology’s nanoHUB site, a scientific cloud-computing environment. They used the algorithm technology to determine which of nanoHUB’s more than 6,000 content items were being used in education through the identification of classroom groups. The National Science Foundation provided funding for part of the research.

Researchers have worked with the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization to register copyright protection for the source code. The technology is available for interested partners to license. Contact Chris Adam at [email protected]


Coursera for Business, part of the global online learning platform Coursera, has released Skills Benchmarking, a new tool that organizations can use to compare the skills of their employees to the skills of employees at other companies in their industries. The benchmarking tool also will help companies identify top performers on their staff in specific competency areas, as well as compare their workforces based on criteria such as industry, geographic region, and company size. The data will provide companies with more information about their workers’ “talent profiles,” including “where the gaps are, and how best to close them,” according to a released statement.


Turnitin, a California-based company that provides plagiarism-detection tools, and Unizin, a Texas-based nonprofit consortium of 25 research institutions promoting accessible and affordable digital education, have joined forces to equip college and university instructors with more data on how students write and revise their work.

Through this partnership, Turnitin’s Originality Check software will generate and send data to the Unizin Data Platform; these combined data sets will help professors detect plagiarism, predict likely student outcomes, better customize instruction, and identify areas where students need more targeted support in their writing.

Faculty currently can access the combined data via their IT offices, explains Brad Zircher, Unizin’s director of business development. “In collaboration with our members, we are determining how to securely provide faculty access directly to the data with a workbench of preferred tools,” says Zircher. “As the use of data for learning analytics matures, the Unizin Data Platform will support a variety of data consumption patterns optimized for different use cases.”

In another bid to provide faculty with data related to student learning, Turnitin recently announced its acquisition of Gradescope, an assessment platform that draws on artificial intelligence to help faculty grade student work more efficiently. In addition, the platform’s AI-assisted grading technology offers professors greater insight into how well their students are learning, so that they can give students quicker and more customized feedback.