Monday, November 25, 2013

An experiment in personalized learning

(Note to those reading this as part of their Blended Learning assignment: the introduction is meant to provide context for a general audience and may safely be skipped.)


Many of us - certainly those reading this blog post - live in a world of information overload. Facts are no longer as dear as they once were. An internet connection provides instant, searchable access to a great part of human knowledge.

The ability to search the internet selectively quickly transforms into the need to do so. A Google search for 'sloths' returns 898,000 hits. That is far too much information to take in, and a selection criterion is needed - a rule whereby some relevant sites will be accessed, and others discarded. Perhaps we're only interested in videos of baby sloths, or academic articles on their digestive systems.

Selection implies context, and context implies personalization. In one context, sloths may be seen in terms of their position in the hierarchy of cuteness. In another, they may be viewed as nothing but host environments for intestinal bacteria.

This context will have been chosen to enrich a particular world-view - an illustrator of children's books in our former example, perhaps, or a microbiologist in the latter. This is personalization.

The particular circumstances of a seeker of knowledge inform the context in which they place facts about the world around them, and this context shapes the selection criteria used to access this information in a way that makes sense to them.

The role of the teacher is changing. Not overnight, and not completely, but it is. For many years the archetypal teacher has been the 'sage on the stage' (as phrased by a course I reference below). An experienced adult with appropriate qualifications hands down information from the lecturer's podium to a student audience. Lectures proceed with the calculated regularity of a locomotive. Students must follow along at the prescribed pace or be left behind. There are extra readings, assigments, quizzes and exams to extend learning beyond the lecture hall, but these are almost always of a one-size-fits-all nature. Even the best-meaning teachers and lecturers seldom have the time to provide their students with customized exercises tailored to their characteristics.

There is some value to this paradigm. When information was costly and difficult to obtain, it made sense for a specialist to collect it on behalf of the students, then feed it to them in a partially digested form. This is similar to how parent birds feed worms to their hatchlings, or how a bee collects pollen and returns it to the hive.

As information becomes abundant and easy to access, the importance of this role diminishes. Anyone with access to a web browser can retrieve information - too much of it, in fact. The expert's role then shifts from the 'sage on the stage' to the 'guide on the side'. The value added from a real live (or pre-recorded) instructor is in giving a guided tour of the neighbourhoods everyone is free to walk through, imbuing them with structure, sense and meaning.

The same technology driving this shift - web search, social networking, interactive applications and so on - also makes it possible for learning to be customized to a student's characteristics and potential to a remarkable degree.

In what follows, I will take you on a tour of a small first step into this new 'blended learning'. The experiment was a small one, done cautiously, which makes it admirably suited as an introduction to the possibilities unlocked by this new way of thinking about learning.


A preliminary disclosure: I've taken a number of free online courses through Coursera, both for professional development and out of curiosity. One of the most rewarding has been Blended Learning: Personalizing Education for Students.

As their final assignment, teachers taking the course were asked to implement blended learning in their classrooms, then film a short video about their experience. Those without a classroom or video recorder (such as yours truly, for now) were asked to write a blog post about one of the student videos, reporting on the experiment as thoroughly as if it had been their own.

After viewing a number of student submissions, I decided to share with you Grace Dorrington's video. Her narration is exceptionally clear, and the changes made in her school were basic enough to serve as a good introduction to blended learning for someone previously unacquainted with the subject.

The main event

Before we begin, you may want to watch the video I'll be writing about. It's short, insightful and the narrator has a lovely accent.

All done? Great. Let's begin.

I'll follow the Economist style guide in calling people what they wish to be called, and refer to the video's author by her YouTube handle, graced05.

First things first

The school in question started out as a fairly traditional one. Teachers lectured at a blackboard, students listened and took notes. While there was an information technology component to teaching, the online learning software was not used to its full potential. It was essentially a virtual bookshelf - the cheap plywood kind - used to store documents.

There wasn't anything wrong in particular with the traditional style used at the school, but there wasn't much right with it, either. Students muddled through as they have around the world for decades, learning their lessons but not being terribly engaged or excited.

Teaching followed the one-size-fits-all paradigm, which worked about as well as Walmart stocking only medium-sized clothing. The same lessons that some pupils found too loose, others would find suffocating.

Two things stood out as candidates for improvement: student engagement with the material, and somehow allowing education to be customized to student needs, abilities and background.

Risk and Reward

The major change implemented by graced05's school was sensible, simple and effective. They replaced their aging learning sotware with Desire2Learn, one of the new generation of learning management systems.

By going with a well-known third-party application, the school reduced the risk involved in switching software platforms when compared to, say, a custom application.

Desire2Learn is well-reviewed. I do not mean that it has uniformly positive ratings - opinions of this platform are notoriously mixed - but that there are a lot of reviews from teachers around the globe spelling out exactly what they liked and what they did not like about the program.

The accumulated experience of thousands of vocal reviewers allows adopters of Desire2Learn to know exactly what they're getting into. If the negative reviews all mention aspects of the platform that are not important to the school in question, then the system will be superior in this case to what the raw average review score (3.2/5 on one site) suggests.

Before implementing the change, graced05's school made sure to upgrade their technology's infrastructure, further reducing the possibility of something going wrong.

What changed?

In bullet point form, here are a few of the changes made possible by the new software:

* Contextualized resources - Instead of having course web sites be virtual Sanford and Son junk piles, teachers have been placing resources in their appropriate context.

The economics web page at 1:31 in the video, although fairly rudimentary, nonetheless postions links, pictures and a video in a context that makes their relationship to the topic under discussion clear. This small change tests the waters of the 'guide on the side' paradigm mentioned above.

* Conditional release of course information - Desire2Learn allows for content to be gated by skill. In the traditional model, students are assumed to progress through the material at the same pace (barring repeating a year). Mastery-based learning, of which this is a trivial instance, only allows students to progress to the next level once they have demonstrated sufficient skills in previous levels.

Students who show facility with the material will be able to zip along quickly, where in a traditional class they may have been bored through having to wait for others to catch up. Similarly, students who may have had trouble advancing at the one-size-fits-all speed can now take more time to learn material they have difficulty with.

This is very similar to the way in which traditional side-scrolling video games (famously, Super Mario Brothers) gated content. In general, a player could not advance to level 2-3 until they had sucessfully completed level 2-2. Appropriately enough for our analogy, players who put extra work into research or exploration of the levels
could be rewarded with the discovery of secret 'warp zones' that allowed them to bypass a significant amount of content.

Based only on anecdotal evidence, I suspect that familiarity with the video game 'beat the level' trope has led students to greet this style of gated content with acceptance rather than frustration.

* Customized (if canned) feedback on quizzes - Until quite recently, I looked down on multiple choice tests and thought them inappropriate in almost any serious course. Taking a few Coursera courses have changed my mind. Modern learning management sytems allow the creation of multiple choice quizzes in such a way that they make a valuable complement to long-answer tests.

In a new-style test, the multiple choice answers are not arbitrarily chosen to look convincingly like the real answer (e.g. (a) 0.12 (b) 0.11 (c) 0.13). Instead, best-practice test designers consider all the common mistakes that a student could make when answering a question, and turns that solution into an answer.

When a student chooses that answer on the test, chances are they made the mistake in question, and appropriate, customized feedback can be given.

Consider a question that asks you to calculate (5 x 4) + 2. A student uncertain about how to use brackets may answer (b) 30. An example of possible feedback is 'Remember that you have to solve the operations in brackets first.'

Although this way of writing multiple choice tests requires more effort from the instructor, the result is a personalized learning experience that provides useful, valuable feedback. For an example in the video, see the screenshot at 2:05.


In this experiment, a fairly small change in structure - implementing an updated learning system - has led to a sea change in how learning, students and teachers are viewed.

In the videographer's own words (2:55), "Though they're still a vital part of ... education, teachers are no longer the only gateway to knowledge."

The adult teachers have had to readjust in their roles, shifting focus from feeding information and seeing it is properly digested to taking the students on a tour of the orchard. The students still end up full and satisfied, but now they climb the trees that most engage them, and pick the fruit that's most comfortably within their reach.

It will take time for things to settle down to a new steady state. Teachers will have to continue thinking as 'guides on the side' and how best to meet the needs of individual students with the available resources and techniques. The rudimentary state of the course sites featured in the video suggest that despite a promising start, there's a long way to go.

Students, meanwhile, will have to understand that they are now in large part responsible for the pace at which their education progresses. For all that this can be liberating and exciting, it can also be a bit scary. Not only that, but interstudent social relationships are bound to change. Where once students in a class were certain to share identical course histories (assginments, readings and so on) now there is no such guarantee.

Pupils will still make friends at school, of course, but the nature of those friendships will be changed at a basic, subtle level. This interesting adjustment will probably happen fairly quickly, if it hasn't already. Teachers have years of training and experience to make them set in their ways. Students join the classroom with a beginner's mind.

That's it for our guided tour of a blended learning experiment. See y'all Thursday, when we may or may not explore the seedy side of macroeconomic subsidies and strategic investment in utilities.

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