Personalisation and the BCS EdTrEP working weekend

Oct 15, 2006

Miles Berry

With one thing and another I only managed to make it up to Leamington Spa for the middle day of this year’s British Computer Society’s Education and Training Expert Panel working weekend. That said, it was an excellent day with lots of opportunities to catch up with folk and a strong sense of keeping abreast of recent developments in the wider field.

The e-learning working party, on which I sit, started off (before my time) as the BCS’s attempt to respond to some aspects of the e-strategy. More recently we’ve explored some aspects of social networking technology, which Terry Freedman and I will be talking about at BETT 07, drawing to some extent on Coming of Age, a new edition of which is in production. Our focus over the next few months is to be personalisation, as it’s now clear that this is central to much of the DfES’s thinking for e-learning, and indeed wider policy agendas – although I’m not clear how healthcare can be anything but personalised!

(C) British LibraryThe majority of schools do, I suspect, relatively little to offer a genuinely personalised learning experience at the moment, however, the learning experience offered by a library is, to my mind at least a highly personalised one, offering the reader/learner a range of resources for them to select between in order to best meet their enthusiasms, aspirations and needs, determined by formal curricula or their own interests. With the guidance of a professional librarian (or really good catalogues, reading lists, bibliographies etc) the reader/learner has all the tools they need to learn all that they want or need. I’ll acknowledge that reading may not suit everyone’s learning style, and that libraries do little to further social learning in an easily recognizable way, but the net makes available not only text but also rich media and worldwide social networks and communities of practice. Which is why, as Jason Cole pointed out at the Moodle Moot, when we want to learn something we go to Google not to the university. Open courseware from the likes of the OU andMITGoogle scholar and their ambition to digitize large swathes of academic libraries will, I suspect, change the role of the university yet further. Now, neither the net nor libraries have (significant) mechanisms for keeping people working when they don’t really want to, whereas schools have developed these for good reasons: left to their own devices, children may not be that excited or motivated in both acquiring basic literacy and numeracy and engaging in the horizon broadening transformation that schools can provide. That said, these control mechanisms have (relatively) little to do with the noble aims of education, like rational autonomy.

The idea that learning can be easily personalised for a class of 30 (or even 18) people who have little more in common than residence and date of birth seems a little bizarre, given that their personal educational starting points and thus needs are likely to be so diverse. That said, finding 30 people out there in the Web who have almost exactly the same learning needs and bringing them into one another’s company and that of a gifted, inspirational teacher might almost be reducible to a technological challenge. From a sufficiently large population, groups such as this could be created and dissolved on a pretty much adhoc basis. More chance this way of getting closer to the “Two sigma” performance gain that individual tutoring can bring, again something Jason Cole had mentioned over the summer.

Chris Anderson and The Long Tail is relevant here – in an age when my pupils and colleagues can choose from millions of books, dvds and pieces of music, why do we, to all intense and purposes, give them no choice over the ten subjects which pretty much every primary aged school in the country delivers, and even at 18+ limit their choice to little more than 50 or so subjects. OK, schools such as ourselves will do their best to broaden the curriculum and allow some choice through extracurricular provision, other organizations have done exciting work here too, like the University of the First Age and NAGTY, and many parents will provide further opportunities themselves, but what it boils down to is the school timetable is the one bit of time when young people have the least choice about what they do – I’m not sure that personalised content is going to change this radically, especially given the way the current assessment regime is structured. Interesting ideas though from the IB programmes, although I’ve since heard elsewhere that there’s a perception that this offers less choice than A-levels.

Some very interesting insights from Christina Preston, MirandaNet’s director who’s also on this working party, about the link between citizenship and life-long learning, and particularly the importance of action alongside the choice and voice components I’ve always tended to emphasize.

We spent a while looking at some of the work that others had done on personalisation (apparently there will be some clearer guidance from the DfES before much longer). There is undoubtedly a split between the choice/voice, learner autonomy people and those who see this in terms of individualised, adaptive programmes of study and content – early pronouncements from the DfES seemed to take the former position, but we’re hearing lots more about the latter these days – this will be an interesting one to watch. We weren’t, on the whole, terribly impressed by some of JISC’s work here, which seemed to be about adaptive learning design, with the machines taking care of the personalisation. More interesting though was Charles Leadbetter’s influential paper for DEMOS onpersonalisation through participation.

Tim Rudd’s after dinner slot touched on a lot of the themes emerging fromFuturelab‘s work, such as children as researchers, c-learning (ie connected) rather than e-learning and re-imagining spaces, places and opportunities. Tim is firmly of the choice and voice school of personalisation, and indeed Futurelab’s Learners’ Charter is a key document here. Tim characterizes the difference as shallow personalisation (essentially mass customisation) vs deep personalisation, which he sees as transformative. Tim’s insight is to see the process as one of co-creation of learning pathways, of negotiation and of active participation, thus providing an ongoing, “guide on the side” role for teachers and overcoming the difficulties which extreme learner autonomy of the google/library model would lead to. The vision here is for education that provides both choice and voice, with relevance, context, collaboration and authenticity. Given the technology now available to us, and the thrust of web 2.0 and open source, we now have the right tools available for the co-creation that Tim’s looking for, rather than merely using the net as a delivery tool. Furthermore, web 2.0 and opensource allows us to move from technology serving the system’s needs to technology that meets the needs of its users.

Tim is also concerned about the way BSF is heading:

“Where is the vision?
Where was the debate?
Where is the built pedagogy?”

The built environment of a school has implicit assumptions about pedagogy, and most of the designs coming out of BSF seem to be making exactly the same assumptions as we did in the 19th Century. Of course, if folks really took seriously the idea of anytime, anywhere learning, then the question of why build schools for the future is one we should be thinking about as well as the how, with learning spaces designed around the workflow which collaborative, learner focussed education implies.