In November 2004 I attended the Post-16 e-Learning Practitioners’ Conference in Manchester, the theme of which was ‘Explore the future of Personalised Learning’. My intention in this article is not to give an account of the various keynote speeches I listened to, or the breakout sessions I attended…even though most of them were very good and some were excellent… rather, my intention is to briefly examine the concept of personalised learning and ask whether or not it can become a reality. (Those of you that want to find out more about the conference can view some of the presentations and/or summaries of the various threads of this conference here.)
At the conference, Professor David Hargreaves, Chair of Becta, argued that education needs to begin to move from a mass production model, where the provider is the decision-maker with regards to what, where, when and how learning takes place, to a mass customisation model, where the learner is the decision-maker about the what, when, where and how of learning.
Why is this paradigm-shift needed? Well, Professor Bob Fryer CBE, Chief Executive of the (soon to disappear as a separate entity) NHS University argues that we live in a rapidly changing environment which can be considered ‘a risk society of unreliability, unpredictability, uncertainty, ubiquitous change and un-sustainability’ (ref.) and the current mass production model of education cannot meet the requirements of such a society.
The appropriate use of information, communication and learning technologies, however, could enable education to make the rapid transition to the mass customisation model which is better suited to meet the needs of learners in such a risk society.
There are, of course, a whole raft of barriers to overcome if this paradigm-shift is to be accomplished and personalised learning is to become a reality for more than just an educationally, economically, socially advantaged elite. Some barriers, such as availability of technology, are relatively easy to overcome - experience tells us that the cost of technology falls very rapidly after the first year or so of its introduction and price is inversely related to technology adoption. Other barriers, such as institutional cultures and practices, are far more difficult to surmount. For example, the current 14-19 UK qualifications framework, places restrictions on the curriculum which, whilst suited to the mass production model of education outlined above, work against the personalisation of learning that is the cornerstone of mass customisation.
The Tomlinson reforms, however, if they are carefully implemented, could be a major step forward in the mass customisation of education. For example, these reforms potentially pave the way for a, say, 15 year old, to spend a couple a days a week in school following academic courses, two days a week in an FE college following a vocational course and one day a week in the workplace gaining industrial experience. The challenges in such a scenario involve ensuring effective communication between the school, college and workplace, access to relevant learning materials whenever the learner needs them, the ability of the learner to submit assignments etc. to a variety of tutors in different locations, manage their time and workload effectively, take assessments at various times and locations and so on.
One possible solution to this lies in the use of the various tools and functionality of the Blackboard suite of products. The learning system will obviously give access to learning materials and assessments, and has the benefit of tutors being able to track access to them by the learner. The e-portfolio, file storage and workflow activities functions of the content management system would allow the learner to manage their workload effectively and communicate with their various tutors effectively and efficiently and via the searchable learning object catalogue and e-reserves they have the ability to personalise their learning to a far greater extent than they probably do at present, and the portal system allows the institution to mass customise information and resources to the different communities of learners that they serve.
In addition, it is highly possible that, via appropriate technology, such as a wireless internet enabled handheld computer with a portable version of Blackboard (such as Arcsoft’s Blackboard toGo) the learner would be able to access content, assessment, communication tools etc, from any location they happened to be.
Thus, a carefully considered combination of technology and educational administration and management would pave the way for personalised learning to become a reality and thus allow the learner to function effectively in the risk society that we are hurtling towards.