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I enjoyed this critique of a journalist’s article on “personalised learning”.

If you read the critique and think that it sounded mean, you should also note that the blog is called Curmudgucation — a fusion of curmudgeon and education.

That said, the critique was not an empty or angry rant. I agree with Curmudgucation’s main critique: Journalists need to go beyond interviewing people and blindly putting a positive spin on edtech claims. Most edtech providers already do selective “research” and tout the effectiveness of their wares. We do not need journalists to amplify when they can help scrutinise.

Edtech is my field — I have a Masters and Ph.D. in it — and it is a mine field. The part of field that the journalist tip-toed though was how technology helps personalise learning.

I have processed articles that try to unpack what personalised learning means or looks like [my curated readings in Diigo]. At one end of the spectrum are reports that come across as panaceas for schooling and educational ills. At the opposite end, personalised learning is a dirty word because it is linked to data-driven methods gone wrong.

Thought leaders have proposed alternatives “personalisation of learning” or suggest what personalised learning is NOT. These do not clarify already muddy waters.

The clearest view of “personalised learning” is that the process is actually about personalised teaching. For example, collecting copious data on every learner to (theoretically) provide them with just-in-time instruction and assessment is not the same as learning.

Learning is not about what we do TO the learner; it is about what the learner DOES. It is about the evidence of each person’s change in knowledge, attitudes, and/or skills. The driving factors in learning that is truly personal revolve around learner agency and self-directedness.

In short, you can try to tailor instruction or coaching, but if the child does not internalise or own the process, there is no personalised learning.

If the learner does not internalise or own the process, there is no personalised learning.

 
Last month I read an article titled, What Personalized Learning Is Not.

Other than our regional difference in spelling of “personalise”, I fully agree with the author that personalised learning is not:

  • Curating a list of fixed choices for students
  • Creating an individual learning plan for each student
  • Simply allowing students to use technology blindly
  • A neat concept or practice

The first three are important messages or reminders to teachers. The last is a warning to administrators and vendors.

Personalised learning does not come in neat packages from edtech vendors. It is not a policy document you can write from an ivory tower.

For some insights into the complexity of just defining what “personalised learning” is, read the 15 dimensions that this group came up with. There is no need to reinvent this wheel. Certainly do not simplify and misrepresent it.

One of the best reads of 2017 so far is this blog entry simply titled Evaluating Personalization.

Personalised learning is a continuum between non-learner-provided choices and learner-directed agency.

I distill the long read to this takeaway: Personalised learning is a continuum between non-learner-provided choices and learner-directed agency. The non-learner could be the teacher, vendor, or edtech platform.

Or, in the words of the author:

…one end of the continuum is personalization for the learner; the other end is personalization by the learner

Instead of trying to outline the main points of the article, I will try to add value to it by making an observation.

In the era before current technologies like computers and phones, the focus was on providing choice. Today, edtech vendors still tout choice: pacing, content, modes, etc. The personalisation by agency — goals, expectations, strategies, evaluation — is still sorely lacking.

We cannot keep making the excuse that learners do not know what they want. If we teach them to wait to be fed, they will be lazy consumers. If we nurture them to think, they will not just critically consume, they will also skilfully catch and create.

There is another major problem with personalisation-as-choice. The options a vendor or designer provides might not actually be choices. I use an example I have cited before.

StarHub app

My current telco, StarHub, has an app that claims to provide “choices” for some cards that you can display or hide. However, if you deselect them, the app reverts to the selected state upon restart. So you cannot remove the content that is not relevant to you from the app.

While the example is from a commercial entity, edtech vendors and designers of curricula often do the same thing — they provide choices in theory that are not actually choices in practice. So even the provision of choice is not necessarily indicative of personalisation.

Learners need not wait for vendors, designers, or teachers to give them choices. With current open and/or collaborative tools like Google Apps and YouTube, learners can take matters into their own hands and find or make their own choices. In doing so, they move from one end of the spectrum to the other by creating their own agency.

 
I have read about the pushback against “personalised learning”, particularly in the USA, for a while. The latest is this article, Teachers’ Union Faces Backlash Over Publication on Personalized Learning.

It might seem strange that attempts to help learners are met with resistance from the people at the frontline of helping them. The rhetoric, and perhaps the possible reality, is that computers and corporatised solutions threaten the jobs of teachers.

The actual reality might be that there are other factors that reduce teaching positions, e.g., shrinking budgets, poor test scores, political mandates.

Singapore’s reality was and is our low birthrate. As a former faculty of Singapore’s only teacher preparation institute, I saw the demand for teachers plateau and now see it in gentle decline.

When I started educating teachers 20 years ago, I would hear preservice teachers occasionally remark during our ICT classes how computers were going to replace them. That did not happen then and ICT is not the cause now.

We have yet to “personalise” learning in the mainstream Singapore classroom as much as edtech vendors might like. We do not have computerised standardised testing like many schools in the USA.

Our personal and personalisable technology is stealthily hidden in students’ bags, locked away in carts, or white-elephanted in labs. ICT is still like good-to-have bottled water and not must-have tap water.

Our edtech vendors are thankfully not as aggressive or creative as enrichment tuition agencies. The latter offer a different sort of personalisation: Exchange money, drilling, and sweat for better grades, never mind if you actually learn anything.

So in the USA and Singapore, we have depersonalised personal learning. It is corporatised and mechanical ICT in the USA; it is the avoidance of meaningful ICT and being test smart here.

Some self-serving proclamations from “edtech” vendors make me do my version of gymnastics — my eyes roll and my stomach turns.

Recently I read how one claimed that it could “make learning more engaging, personalised and accessible”. I did my flips and then I felt nauseous.
 

 
Why should something that seems positive be so repulsive to me? Let’s break the claim down element by element.

First, the rhetoric of engagement. The premise for this rhetoric might read: I need to stimulate you, and if I do not, you do not learn. There is some merit to this based on what we know about cognition. If you do not get first attention, then subsequent stimuli are not likely to register.

However, the assumption here is that the stimulus is external. Students are taught to expect to be entertained or switched on instead of nurtured to be independent and self-driving.

Leaders in education and edtech have already started writing and speaking about learner agency and empowerment. This means that learners should not be treated only as consumers, but also as creators of content.

“Engaging” learners with extrinsic motivations is old school and futile in the long run. Empowering them to make, teach, and share is the new order of the day.

Vendors know that policymakers and teachers like to hear about engagement. It feels powerful to be able to engage. However, this does not guarantee students learn powerfully and meaningfully.

Vendors also know that the students must remain consumers and teachers or policymakers must remain buyers. If students and teachers learn to DIY and share openly, then vendors go out of business.

Second, personalised learning is not when it focuses on instruction. Teaching is not the same act as learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning in the same way that talking is not the same as listening.

Let’s assume that the personalisation of learning has three main requirements:

  1. Meeting students where they are.
  2. Letting students progress at their own rate.
  3. Offering students rich and relevant learning experiences.

The reality of “personalised learning” by vendors is often the opposite. Students to go where the vendor is (platforms, logins, access policies, etc.) Students may also need to meet prerequisites to earn the right to “personalise” their learning the vendor’s way.

Resources expire or are locked away if someone else decides the learners do not need them or should not see them. The same entity also dictates an access duration and period.

Sometimes what vendors actually mean by “rich and relevant learning” is actually individualised or customised instruction. They would like you to believe that they can provide choices for your students. For reasons pragmatic and financial, these choices are finite, predetermined, and locked behind a paywall.

Meanwhile learners young and old are already “personalising their learning” by a) not calling it that, b) Googling, c) using YouTube, and d) relying on social connections.

In other words, learners of today are already taking agency and empowering themselves to make their own decisions.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Teaching is neat while learning is messy. Personalisation is also messy, and no vendor can or should promise neat packages.

Third, “accessible” is not as broad as it should be. The vendor might mean online and reachable 24×7 (barring maintenance, which coincidentally, will always mess with your schedule). It could also refer to online resources being available on desktop, laptop, slate, or phone.

Such a claim of being accessible is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Consider if the resource is available if the learner is at level 5 but needs to access level 4 or 6 work. In most cases, the learner will not have such access.

Now consider if the learners are disabled is some way (mentally, physically, socially) or disenfranchised (financially, culturally). How more broadly accessible are the resources to these learners?

The vendors might call me fussy. I might call them dishonest. You decide whose interests I have in mind and heart.


Video source

As I watched this neuroscientist explaining “the connectome” to five people at five different levels of prior knowledge, I thought of how:

  • This was a great example of how good teachers attempt to personalise instruction.
  • Just about anything can be taught to anyone if you empathise with the learner first.
  • Anything worth teaching should be taught to a wide spectrum of learners.

Personalised teaching is about going to where the learner is first, not trying to pull them where you are or where the curriculum dictates.

If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.

 


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