Unpicking Personalised Learning

I owe everything I am to my parents; they saw to it that I had an education. I went to one of the early comprehensive schools where the ideal of equal opportunity for all set the baseline for what we did. Being the 60’s we were “banded” then “streamed” this was the time of the 1940 Education Act. I left there with 10 average ‘O’ levels and 2 good A levels and my parent saw to it that I went on to higher education. I returned after my first term, an alien. Suddenly nobody spoke the same language, I was adrift. In 1974 I emerged, the product of a Christian socialist education and entered the teaching profession. Hold that thought.

Earlier this week Charles Arthur from The Guardian @charlesarthur used Twitter to say that he was talking to some school children about the future of learning; I said that learning would be personalised to which he retorted: through software? On reflection that statement; the future of learning is personalised, needs unpicking; I happen to believe that  a certain amount of learning theory is based on an urban, middle class model of society. If you think about it, it’s not just learning. If you’re talking about inclusion what you really mean is inclusion in a Western European, middle class value set and most things fall out from that.

What happens if learning does become truly personalised? Tech is cheap and reliable and software platforms are common place. Add into the mix the mass of open access, multimedia content that is on the World Wide Web and why shouldn’t we personalise our own learning? I would argue though that this isn’t about tech.

Set aside all of the arguments about individual’s ability to structure their own learning, the untutored personality and all of the justification for a formal education system. Let’s set aside the cries of: where’s the pedagogy? What about the curriculum? I’m mindful of that; it may have been 47 plus years ago but I have been there. Just because learning is personalised it doesn’t mean you don’t have schools. There are some testing questions: what happens to the ideas about further and higher education when the boundaries between 14-19 establishments disappear? Who sets the standards? Why should learning stop just because it’s an 11-16 establishment? What happens to higher education when its resources are deemed suitable for 16 year olds? What happens to the fee structure? How do you access tutorials? Who sets the standard for quality? Yes I know that all these things happen now on a very small scale, but what if these were not the exceptions; what would happen to the system?

At the other end of the social scale people who are disengaged from learning now could find that a truly personalised system allows them to define a new curriculum that meets their needs. This is the non-middle class curriculum. This is a curriculum that helps people to cope with housing issues, lone parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, unemployment and the benefits system. In an idealistic way it’s a curriculum that helps people to understand, helps people who are disenfranchised and empowers them.

A personalised learning environment will benefit from tech, I have no doubt. This means that we have to have digital inclusion, which is why I believe in it as a fundamental right but if digital inclusion is to have meaning then we have to ask ourselves the question: included in what? When Forster (a Liberal) introduced the Elementary Education Act in 1870 there were objections to the idea of a universal education because it might make the labouring classes think! If we are to have truly personalised learning we have to understand the value of digital technology but we have to stop worrying about it. We have to de-couple learning from skills, put skills back in the box and get them out when needed and not predicate everything on skills. Our obsession with differentiation has brought us to a place where we have commoditised learning so that we have learning brands; Eaton, Charterhouse, Oxford and Cambridge are world famous brands. Conversely we have devalued learning that is relevant to a whole other stratum of society; no wonder people become disengaged. In a personalised world there are many curricula of even weight because the end point is not necessarily defined by a single set of values and if we are to include people we have to recognise those other values. A learning society builds social capital and social capital leads to innovation and from that innovation you get true public value.

Am I still a teacher? No, while I had many years association with the teaching profession I left the classroom after 15 years. So, is the future of education a personalised one? It should be and digital technology should play a role but the barriers to a truly personalised education system are embedded in our social system in a way that is exclusive, in many ways we haven’t moved very far from the fears of the 1870s.

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