Personalisation in education: myth or reality?

Image credit Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Image credit Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

From the media and popular cultural representation, it would seem that the personalisation of education for each learner is the ultimate goal that must be achieved.

It is obvious that personalisation for each learner cannot happen with the large class sizes that we have unless additional help is brought in for the teacher. Educational Technology companies would have us believe that they have the solution. But do they

What is personalisation though?

If we were to offer personalisation of education, we would need to be able to assess each learner’s knowledge and skills and then provide them with learning opportunities that match their particular profile

such that they are just slightly beyond the learner’s current levels so that they can move towards that level (some readers will recognise this as being Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development).

This would only be possible with technology as there is no way a teacher could even attempt this in a class even of 20 learners.However, it goes beyond the matching of level to learner though.

For real personalisation to take place, each learner’s curriculum will have to be unique – there cannot be a one-size-fits-all curriculum and therefore no national standards to which the learners work.

Nor can there be age-cohort schooling where learners of similar ages are in the same grade. Each child needs to be treated uniquely.

Of course, I am tending towards the absurd here, but this is what proper personalisation would be. 

The CEO of Amplify, one of the world’s more successful education technology companies, Larry Berger, admitted in 2018 that we did not as yet have the technology available to do the right sort of assessment required, nor do the educational resources exist to be able to match the learner exactly.

Unfortunately, two years later we are only a little further along the path. Such true personalisation using digital technology is a pipe dream.

There are less extreme versions of personalisation possible.

Some software allows for adaptive learning, in other words, the technology being used adjusts to each learner’s skill level.

Without technology, personalisation can include giving learners some say over how they present work, or what topics they wish to cover.

Read here about highly effective teachers: The beliefs of highly effective teachers

Do we just give up?

I don’t think so. It would be ideal to provide learners with an education that meets their needs and their interests.

And we certainly need to offer learners with as much personal attention as possible.

We just need to be honest with ourselves with respect to what we can do, and what we call personalised education.

So, what is possible?

Technology is often considered to be some sort of scary monster that is going to take away our jobs and perhaps run the world.

Artificial Intelligence experts cannot agree however, when, or even if, technology will become as powerful as science fiction stories and scare mongers would have us believe.

What currently exists in educational technology can provide some useful assistance in working at a more personal level with learners to achieve their goals.

At is most basic, educational technology can be used to optimise what is often regarded as the worst part of learning: rote learning.

There are some things that we need to learn ‘off-by-heart’ for good reasons. For example, knowing the times tables in mathematics reduces cognitive load to allow for higher order thinking to take place.

The technology can track each learner to know exactly where they are to provide the right amount of input to develop their skill or knowledge.

What’s more, this sort of drill practise work taken on by technology can free the teacher to do more meaningful (personalised) work with other learners.

It is possible to introduce game-like elements into the learning experience to make it more fun and engaging for learners using the technology.

We are starting to see Artificial Intelligence in educational technology that creates its own questions rather than relying on the basic programming of a set of existing learning resources that Berger spoke of.

This changes everything. With the educational technology being able to create questions it means that the personalisation of learning comes one step closer.

No longer do we need to have a complete assessment and set of learning resources available when we start with a learner.

The AI will develop its own through experience. This is only at the early stages though, and will take a while before it becomes the norm.

Read here:  Your choice: Fight and flight or rest and digest?

What does it mean for me as a teacher?

For me, I think it is time that teachers stop beating themselves up for not personalising education for their learners.

It is not yet possible for computers to provide real personalised learning, and it is simply not possible to do as a human, especially if you are teaching more than one learner. 

What teachers do very well is to note what is happening with each learner at an emotional and intellectual level – when they are having a good day, or a bad one;and what they are struggling with and what they love doing.

Within the confines of the curriculum and large classes teachers have provided, and continue to provide, the support and guidance needed by their learners.

Yes, it may not be the vision of science fiction writers, but it is what got us all through our schooling, and what will continue to allow learners to grow and develop long into the future.

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