Magazine article The Futurist

The World Is My School: Welcome to the Era of Personalized Learning: Future Learning Will Become Both More Social and More Personal, Says an Educational Technology Expert

Magazine article The Futurist

The World Is My School: Welcome to the Era of Personalized Learning: Future Learning Will Become Both More Social and More Personal, Says an Educational Technology Expert

Article excerpt

Humans have always been learning, but how we learn has changed over time. The earliest means of education were highly personal: Oral histories passed from adults to children, informal or formal apprenticeships, and one-on-one tutoring have all been used in the early history of most cultures. It's only been in the last two centuries that we've used formalized systems of mass public education (aka industrialized education).

Certainly, personalized learning is the more effective method. In 1984, educational researcher Benjamin Bloom found that average students who were tutored one-on-one outperformed 98% of students who were learning via conventional methods (this is referred to as Bloom's two-sigma problem). However, personal learning is not cost-effective, and so we currently educate students in batches of 20, 30, or even 200 students at a time. This is likely to get worse before it gets better, with prominent philanthropists like Bill Gates declaring that "the best lectures in the world" will be online within the next five years. Certainly we can use technology to deliver those lectures to thousands, or even millions, of students at a time, but a lecture does not automatically produce learning any more than attending a class does.

Mass education is adequate, as long as students are highly motivated to learn and get ahead of their peers. In developing countries, a student who is successful in education will be able to climb the ladder of personal economic prosperity faster than those who are not successful. But in industrialized countries, where prosperity is the norm, an education does not necessarily translate into a significantly higher standard of living. In these countries, there is no longer a large economic incentive to learn, so the motivation to learn must become intrinsic. As we redesign en masse education, we must address learners' intrinsic motivations, which means that education must circle back to being personal again.

The vision of a modern education built around personalized learning is not new, but it is definitely tantalizing. Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age (Spectra, 1995) shares a vision of personalized learning in the future via an interactive book that possesses a conversational interface (CI) and "pseudo-intelligence," a kind of artificial intelligence (AI) that is inferior to human intelligence. It's likely that we'll see decent conversational interfaces within the next decade, and certainly applications like Google Voice are moving us much closer to this reality. AI that is capable of directing the learning needs of a human will take much longer, developing in the next 20-50 years, but we can't wait that long for the technology to catch up with education. The need for personalized learning exists in the here and now. So how does one bridge this vision of the future with the realities of the present?

Learning Technologies Today

Let's start by taking stock of the personalized technologies for information that we already have. We have software that stores the content we like (e.g., Evernote, Posterous) and software that merely stores the location of that content (e.g., Diigo or Delicious). Even traditional media, like books, now have parallel digital systems that allow for note taking, highlighting, and bookmarking (e.g., Kindle, Nook, or iPad). While it's useful to store and search information, I would venture that we rarely go back to look at the information we mark for storage.

This is a problem; for deep learning to occur, we need to have repeated exposure to the information, along with some time in between for reflection. We need to give our brains a repeated opportunity to process the information we take in so that it becomes knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. This means we're going to have to find time in our busy lives to reflect on the information that flows past us on a daily basis, and we're going to need some kind of technology that keeps us on track with our learning goals. …

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