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Personalisation In Blended Learning

Personalisation In Blended Learning

Part 2: Artificial contact

In the next instalments of this series on blended learning, Dr. Mark Spokes explores the most essential elements of personalisation in education and blended learning. There are precarious false paths that must be avoided in the pursuit of this “holy grail” of learning. In particular the propensity to favour technological advances over the thoughtful integration of online learning with effective teaching in face-to-face interactions. This series of blogs explains how blended learning can be designed and developed for a differentiated and personalised education that is truly transformative.

Powerful is our need to be known, really known by ourselves and others, even if only for a moment.

Carl R. Rogers

Knowing Sophia

Sophia needed to be known. She felt invisible. The times when she braved to speak up in class or submit a comment online offered little reassurance of being really known by others. The previous blog introduced Sophia as she met with me for the first time as her assigned mentor to discuss options for leaving her undergraduate course after just a few weeks. Sophia had expressed her frustration with peers and teachers, who seemed either unable or unwilling to recognise what it meant for her to adjust to this new and challenging learning environment. Nobody had helped her feel that she belonged. Sophia firmly believed that she could only find someplace better suited to her own needs with Asperger syndrome.

Nick Hodge, Professor of Inclusive Practice at Sheffield Hallam University, stresses the high level of skill that is required for anyone to really appreciate what it means for learners with autism to navigate their way in a world defined by ableist practices. But Sophia had found herself desperately seeking some kind of recognition within an educational institution that did not come close to understanding her unique individuality. Informally it labelled learners as having a problem (or even being a problem) for not fitting in or keeping up with “normal” development.

Sophia did eventually decide to stay and continue her studies. It just took a wholehearted conversation about who Sophia really is and what it meant to her to be Sophia in the world. This reassured her that she was really known to someone who was able and willing to provide support and guidance. Although Sophia might be a special example, many learners share this need for meaningful personal contact.

Artificial contact

Personalisation is now the gold-standard for education. The commodification of education has transformed learners into consumers expecting a customisable experience in return for their considerable financial investment. The fear of falling behind competitors in the pursuit of these consumers continues to pile pressure on educational institutions to keep up and demonstrate their capabilities to meet the demands for a personalised learning experience. We are certainly meeting more and more clients concerned about what everyone else is doing with their online technologies to engage learners. Every now and then, questions also include the new technological advances they should also be considering for the future.

At the educational conferences we attend, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is regularly being presented as the solution to the problem of personalised learning. A growing number of experts predict a coming age of AI that will transform education. Promises of quick, cheap and objective methods of collecting and analysing information at levels far exceeding even the most capable teachers are common. The likes of Hans Moravcec at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University and Kenneth Rogoff at Harvard University are even forecasting that AI will replace teachers in the near future.

Gordon Moore’s famous explanation of exponential growth in technological performance certainly suggests that AI will rapidly become more sophisticated. The moment when technologies advance even beyond human intelligence is fast approaching, known as the “the Singularity”, named by Vernon Vinge. Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, explains how this will lead to intelligent machines designing even more intelligent machines. All with the potential to change education in ways that most institutions have not yet grasped.

AI could conceivably offer meaningful contact that learners seek. David Levy, a leading expert in AI, expects us to share even more intimate relationships with robots as they become more advanced. These developments remind me of the scientists featured in the classic 1985 movie, D.A.R.Y.L. Who concluded that they could treat their Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform as human if everyone could no longer tell he was actually an android.

In real life, scientists from all over the world continue to meet the test devised by Alan Turing in 1950 of developing AI that is indistinguishable from a human. However, the fact remains that the AI that is readily available is still far from a credible substitute for meaningful human contact. All AI requires extensive contact with specific individuals to even get close to customising responses. Anyone who attempts to hold a genuine conversation about life with Siri will end up going in circles around the programmed statements, “I don’t know how to respond to that” is a good example.

Genuine contact

AI offers new capabilities to analyse large amounts of quantifiable data on student interactions. But this alone does not offer an immediate and suitable answer to the question of how to offer personalised attention in education. Learners seek meaningful contact and support most when faced with uncertain or challenging environments. We are now meeting more educational institutions hoping to placate the common impulse of learners to either escape or impose some control over these environments perceived as a threat.

The desire to update tired formats is welcome and ensure good content is more engaging and enjoyable for learners. However, we often find engagement being misinterpreted as a goal itself rather than understanding how it can be translated into effective learning. If technologies distract learners or prevent them from facing challenges the opportunity for growth can be missed. Instead, they should help them to find new ways to accept and adapt to their environments just as they are. The power in meaningful contact is in the support that a teacher or a mentor can provide. This allows learners to stay present in the here and now. Or at least long enough to learn the valuable lessons in where they are and what they are facing.

The psychologist, Sherry Turkle, warns that we now just expect more from technology and less from each other. She described her own surprise when encountering a woman seeking some comfort in a conversation with a robotic toy, trying to make sense of her world with a machine lacking even a basic experience of human life. A growing dependence upon technology means we are getting used to new ways of being alone, together. As Marshall McLuhan explained back in the 1960s, the constant reinvention of our relationships with technologies in turn, reinvent us.

Carl Rogers conceived of contact in terms of being present or not. This should be thought of more in terms of a continuum of degrees of contact. Rather than a stark contrast between being either here or there. This is especially true in the age of the tethered generation of learners with communication technologies always on.

However, few learners are likely to feel meaningful contact in a conversation with AI. A not insignificant question remains as to who or what would even be felt as present. But it is important to remain aware of how the illusion of relationship now seems to offer more protection from the feelings of vulnerability that come with risking genuine connection.

Transformative learning comes with genuine contact in shared experiences. Additionally, a willingness to reveal ourselves for others to know and accept us for who we really are. We are only learning to hide from each other as we share more and more with technologies. The real key to personalised learning then is a personal connection. And there are plenty of simple ways to ensure genuine contact when crafting a perfect blend of learning.

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