“Personalized learning” is that one area of research and practice that brings to the forefront many of the debates and issues that the field is engaging with right now. If one wanted to walk people through the field, and wanted to do so through *one* specific topic, that topic would be personalized learning.
Personalized cans? (CC-licensed image from Flickr)
Here’s are some of the questions that personalized learning raises:
- We have a problem with labels and meaning in this field. Heck, we have a problem with what to call ourselves: Learning Technologies or Educational Technology? Or perhaps instructional design? Learning Design? Learning, Design, and Technology? Or is it Learning Science? Reiser asks: What field did you say you were in? The same is true for personalized learning. Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield ask what does “personalized learning” mean and what is the term’s history? Does it mean different pathways for each learner, one pathway with varied pacing for each learner, or something else?
- The Chan-Zuckerberg initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation endorse personalized learning. What is the role of philanthropy in education in general and educational technology in particular? Should educators and researchers “beware of big donors” or should they enthusiastically welcome the support in the current climate of declining public monies?
- Where is the locus of control? Is personalization controlled by the learner? Is the control left to the software? What of shared control? Obsolete views of personalization and adaptive learning focus on how the system can control both the content and the learning process ignoring, for the most part, the learner, even though learner control appears to be an important determinant of success in e-learning (see Singhanayok & Hooper, 1998). The important question in my mind is the following: How do we balance system and learner control? Such shared control should empower students and enable technology to support and enhance the process. Downes distinguishes between personalized learning and personal learning. I think that locus of control is the distinguishing aspect, and that the role of shared control remains an open conceptual and empirical question. Debates about xMOOCx vs cMOOCs fall in here as well as the debate regarding the value of guided vs discovery learning.
- How do big data and learning analytics improve learning and participation? What are the limitations of depending on trace data? Personalized learning often appears to depend on the creation of learner profiles. For example, if you fit a particular profile you might receive a particular worked-out example or semi-completed problem, and problems might vary as one progresses through a pathway. Or, you might get an email from Coursera about “recommended courses” (see my point above regarding definitions and meanings). Either way, the role that large datasets, analytics, and educational data science – as well as the limitations and assumptions of these approaches, as we show in our research – is central to personalization and new approaches to education.
- What assumptions do authors of personalized learning algorithms make? We can’t answer this question unless we look at the algorithms. Such algorithms are rarely transparent. They often come in “black box” form, which means that what we have no insight into the processes of how inputs are transformed to outputs. We don’t know the inner workings of the algorithms that Facebook, Twitter, and Google Scholar use, and we likely won’t know how the algorithms that EdTechCompany uses work to deliver particular content to particular groups of students. If independent researchers can’t evaluate the inner workings of personalized learning software, how can we be sure that such algorithms so what they are supposed to do without being prejudicial? Perhaps the authors of education technology algorithms need a code of conduct, and a course on social justice?
- Knewton touts its personalization engine. Does it actually work? Connecting this to broader conversations in the field: What evidence do we have about the claims made by the EdTech industry? Is there empirical evidence to support these claims? See for example, this analysis by Phil Hill on the relationship between LMS use and retention/performance and this paper by Royce Kimmons on the impact of LMS adoption on outcomes. If you’ve been in the position of making a technology purchasing in K-12/HigherEd, you have likely experienced the unending claims regarding the positive impact of technology on outcomes and retention.
- And speaking of data and outcomes, what of student privacy in this context? How long should software companies keep student data? Who has access to the data? Should the data follow students from one system (e.g., K-12) to another (e.g., Higher Ed)? Is there uniformity in place (e.g., consistent learner profiles) for this to happen? How does local legislation relate to educational technology companies’ use of student data? For example, see this analysis by BCCampus describing how British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) impacts the use of US-based cloud services. The more one looks into personalization and its dependence on student data, the more one has to explore questions pertaining to privacy, surveillance and ethics.
- Finally, what is the role of openness is personalized learning? Advocates for open frequently argue that openness and open practices enable democratization, transparency, and empowerment. For instance, open textbooks allow instructors to revise them. But, what happens when the product that publishing companies sell isn’t content? What happens, when the product is personalized learning software that uses OER? Are the goals of the open movement met when publishers use OER bundles with personalized learning software that restricts the freedoms associated with OER? What becomes of the open agenda to empower instructors, students, and institutions?
There’s lots to contemplate here, but the point is this: Personalized learning is ground zero for the field and its debates.
The New York Times published an article on an edX course (Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought) offered by Tsinghua University. Inside Higher Ed (IHE) wrote about it, too. The following quote from IHE articles summarizes the articles:
“That course is raising eyebrows because, despite hours of video lectures and supplemental material in the course, students would still have to tab over to Wikipedia to learn about the millions who died as a result of Mao’s land reforms or that his economic initiatives led to what may have been the greatest famine in human history, which killed tens of millions. Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought references those events glancingly in passing as “mistakes,” and generally heaps praise on Mao and his philosophies.”
I was asked to provide commentary for the New York Times article, and since it wasn’t included in the writeup, I thought it would be a good idea to share it publicly rather than leave it hidden away in my email inbox. Here is what I said:
Open courses are transparent, and that’s one of their positive aspects. They allow anyone to examine the ways that course creators think about a topic. The instructional materials from the Mao course are available to anyone to examine and study. One can look at the materials and ask: How do these materials position Mao Zedong? What are the elements of Mao’s thought that the creators of this course want to highlight? What elements of Mao’s thoughts are left behind and what are the elements that are being highlighted? What is the story that is being told here, and who stands to benefit from this story?
Stephen Downes made a similar argument in the IHE article: ““courses that might have been offered behind closed doors are offered for everyone to see.”
Now, that’s parsimonious :)
The Chronicle of Higher Education published a commentary some time ago that argued that professors are “naive users of social media” and must exercise caution. It’s difficult to argue with the recommendation to exercise caution, when one looks at the list of scholars who found themselves in trouble in the last year: Salaita, Goldrick-Rab, Grundy, and so on.
But, the claim that professors are naive users of social media is unsubstantiated and reveals a limited understanding of the literature on how professors actually use social media and what they think about them. My colleagues and I have been conducting research on networked scholarship and scholars’ use of social media since 2009, and since that time, I can’t recall interviewing a faculty member or reading a study that revealed naiveté regarding social media and the challenges/tensions they introduce. If anything, most academics have an astute understanding of how social media intersect with their professional (and personal) lives and make informed (and tactical) decisions regarding their use of these technologies.
Granted, many find themselves in conundrums as a result of being in collapsed contexts and being exposed to unanticipated audiences, but to argue naiveté is misinformed.
I’m at the Open Education 2015 conference, and I am struck by the continuing focus on costs, and the absence of theorizing openness, (and by extension OER and open textbooks). Is this a problem? Reducing costs is of course important. There’s no question about it. But whether the absence of theory is a problem depends what we believe theory does. After hearing many talks start with statements akin to “we asked faculty to use open textbooks, but…” or “we hoped the institution would embrace openness because it reduced costs, but…”, I thought that it might be worthwhile to ask more why questions:
- Why do some faculty do and others do not adopt open textbooks?
- Why do some faculty revise OER?
- Why do some faculty choose to publish their work in closed journals?
Theorizing openness can help us answer many of these questions. Because openness does not exist in a vacuum. I think that a sociocultural theoretical framing of openness can help practitioners and researchers make better sense and use of openness. Here’s a quote from a recent paper that argues for and clarifies this framing:
“A sociocultural perspective on openness, open practices and open scholarship views these practices as being socially shaped, and the technologies used to enact openness as necessarily, if not always intentionally, embedding their developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and assumptions into their design and the activities they support and encourage. By recognizing that open practices are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political factors, this perspective rejects the notion that such practices are deterministic and holds that, with adequate information and evidence, learners, instructors, and researchers have the agency to accept or reject any particular technology or practice or to find alternative uses for it that will better serve their needs.” (p. 202)
Veletsianos, G. (2015). A Case Study of Scholars’ Open and Sharing practices. Open Praxis 7(3), 199-209. http://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/206/168
Related: See this presentation by Royce Kimmons which argues the following:
“[O]penness is more than economy. The freedoms afforded by open practices have great promise for improving the pedagogy and professionalism in our educational institutions as educators are empowered to differentiate, collaborate, and innovate in ways that were impossible under non-open paradigms.”