Monday, 25 July 2016

What Adaptive Learning Isn't

One of my career lows was during the final interview for a head teachers job. This was in the era when "Personalised Learning" was A Thing, and every candidate had to do a 10 minute presentation to all staff about their approach (which must have been insanely enjoyable for the staff, but I'm sure they at least managed a wager on the outcome).

That final interview was not pretty. It had been a long two days if I'm honest, and it was a big interview panel (about 15 people in at least four ranks of seats, a bizarre setup that seemed designed to make everyone feel awkward).  Then the member of senior leadership that I had sensed didn't like me* the whole way through fired this left-field question about how I would personalise the curriculum for every one of the 200 students in each cohort at the school. In a sea of highly abstract leadership questions, here was something for the curriculum and technology geek in me to pounce on.

I made a basic error and answered the question I was asked (instead of the the question I should have been asked**) with thoughts on single year courses, modular courses, mixed age teaching to create curriculum flexibility for greater matching to the needs of groups of students and technology may have come in there at some point. There is a lot that can be done with structures and setup - just as there is a lot that can be done with MOOCs for eLearning (without meaning MOOCs *are* eLearning).

I probably sounded plausible, and the ideas would have created a more bespoke experience for each learner without huge cost, but I was making a basic mistake. Personalised education is not about creating one curriculum per student, any more than the travel industry was personalised by travel agents using technology to create incredibly bespoke packages for everyone: it was personalised by the disruptive force of people equipped to go do it themselves.

Personalising learning is about equipping each student to personalise their own learning experience and by creating the flexibility to allow that to happen (both are required - otherwise you get either frustrated learners or wasted resources). For me, when thinking about eLearning, that is about much more than just what happens in the classroom.

I went on to work at the SSAT with Professor David Hargreaves and got a much better understanding of the many ways schools can support personalisation - there is still a lot of good stuff on the web about this - for anyone interested I'd suggest this as a starting point (you can Bing! some of the original material if you so choose, but not from the SSAT anymore sadly).

Anyway, in Hack Education Weekly News this week I bumped into this piece about Agile Learning from George Siemens at eLearning Space. Siemens critiques much of the work in the field of adaptive learning as being over-focused on content - ensuring the learner accesses the right content in the right form.
Today’s adaptive software robs learners of the development of the key attributes needed for continual learning – metacognitive, goal setting, and self-regulation – because it makes those decisions on behalf of the learner.
Anyone following the SSAT personalising learning work would recognise that Siemens is raising the lack of development of some of the key things a learner needs for personalisation. Much adaptive learning technology is the opposite of co-construction - it is just 'doing it for the learner' using an algorithm, faster and cheaper.

Siemens argues that it is not about Adaptive Learning per se, rather about developing Agile Learners.

I agree so very, very strongly and will endeavour to be on-trend by talking about agile learning rather than personalised learning from now on. Wonder if there'll be a standards fund grant for it... ah nostalgia.

* I actually met the person in question years later at an SSAT event (on personalising learning bizarrely) and after a really interesting and positive discussion I dared to admit to them that I thought they'd disliked me from the start of the selection process only to be told that was completely untrue. Mind you, I'd have said that too in the same situation...

** Answering the question you think you should have been asked rather than the one you've been asked is probably not the best technique, but it has worked for me once when asked "our students don't bring pens and pencils to lessons, how would you resolve that" - telling them what I thought the real question was, and answering it gave me enough time to work out an answer to the first question!

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