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The risks of 'individualised learning' in the digital age



While at the Future of ELT conference at Regents university the other week, a talk by Philip Kerr got me thinking about a buzz word that seems to have lost its buzz: personalised learning, or individualised learning, if that’s the trademark you subscribe to. As the talk quite rightly pointed out, these terms have recently gained favour by attaching themselves to approaches which could somehow improve education by focusing on the individual child/learner/student, working to their wants and interests in order to increase motivation and performance. Sound familiar?


It should do, as this is what we have been doing in the ESOL classroom since the notion of humanist student-centredness came about in the 1970s (if not earlier). The idea of ‘individualised learning’ is the bread and butter of communicative methodology, SEN/Specific Learning Differences, project-based learning, differentiation, learner engagement, learning preferences, the drive for authentic interaction in the language classroom… I could go on. It’s nothing new, so why all the song and dance about personalisation in mainstream education?


In the UK, this seemed to come about in 2007, when the Department for Children, Schools and Families defined personalisation as ‘a matter of both moral purpose and social justice (which) can be an important strand of action in meeting statutory equalities duties.’ (DCSF, 2008). This is a lofty statement indeed, being based on revisions to the national curriculum whereby a ‘new approach in schools … means we will focus on every pupil, in every year group, not just those at the end of key stages and in the middle of the ability range’ (DCSF, 2007), which I assumed should have been the goal of a national education system all along. Nevertheless, the buzzword was fixed in the UK education mindset.


Reading on into other documentation by the DCSF, issues such as diversity, learner autonomy, parent/stakeholder involvement, holistic education and scaffolded learning (all methodologies which have been prevalent in the ESOL industry for decades) are introduced as new aspects of this revolutionary new approach to education. Perhaps the apolitical ESOL/EFL industry has enabled more independent research into classroom practice than is possible in the national education setting, giving results. If so, I am surprised that these breakthroughs from the 1970s onwards have not been passed on to the mainstream school system - we are all educators, after all…


More recently, the cause of individualised learning has been championed by none other than Jeb Bush as he moved on from his governorship of Florida, as part of his ExcelinEd, under investment from Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and NewsCorp. This is where this ‘new educational approach’ crosses over into potentially worrying territory. With such high-stakes investment, the profitability of the personalised/individualised buzzword to media and non-educational tech stakeholders is brought to light. This combination of vested interest from the fields of politics, tech, media and big business into a trending education issue speaks for itself.


Of these, technology is currently the biggest emergent area in education, attracting enormous investment into platforms and interfaces for online learning. Most online platforms, by their very nature, are individualised; they are used by individual learners following their own development in their own homes. Predictably, this is an opportunity not to be missed by investors in new education platforms, often using ‘big data’ to provide the information about learners that they need in order to offer the targeted, personalised content that they market as their main draw. For example, the outgoing head of social strategy for the social media platform Google+, Max Ventila, set up his ‘Altschool’ in 2014 with an investment of 33 million US dollars. This system is designed to ‘individualise’ learning by using big data to give students the learning experience that suits them best based on their stated preferences, online profile and other information supplied by parents. Other interests in the system include the Chan/Zuckerberg Silicon Valley Community foundation, tech startup gurus Harrison Metal and the former head of computer games company Activision, showing again the high-stakes, cross-media draw that the personalised badge has when combined with online learning.


Let’s take a step back and examine the implications of this definition of personalised learning. If a child’s individualised content is based on the interests, habits and experiences that are given to the LMS so that a course of study can be designed for them, it runs the same risk as that experienced by readers of targeted news feeds and social media notifications - they may only get access to content and ideas that they are already interested in, have experience with, or already adhere to. The job of any education system is to present learners with concepts and topics that they are not familiar with. This is what defines learning processes. With access to information that is limited to a learner’s existing set of concepts and interests, it is unlikely that the same depth of challenge will be presented as a result. Challenges of this kind put learners outside their comfort zone, and present them with content that they may not agree with or usually want to think about, but that form of challenge is essential for a rounded education to take place. When personalisation goes too far, and is not informed by effectively planned curricula, the risks are great to large numbers of students.


I agree that an amount of individualisation is necessary in education - without it, school reverts back to the ‘knowledge-mill’ approach which was prevalent in the early 20th century. Without some attention to the characteristics of the individuals in the classroom, motivation, differentiation and appeals to learners’ needs are precluded. However, when approaches based on social media and digital marketing cross over into education, the risk of restricting young minds to the familiar and safe increases at the expense of the new and unknown that they should be curious about. This is counterintuitive for any educational approach. Algorithms are not course designers, and teachers are not site engineers, so when the lines are blurred between high-stake investments, big data, technology and education, these emerging risks can easily become very real.


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Tom Garside is a teacher educator, education developer and consultant in the fields of TESOL, assessment literacy and continuous professional development for English language educators worldwide.

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