Personalisation is often hailed as a remedy for the “one-size-fits-all” teaching approach. The idea of personalised learning is tightly connected to technology, because it is generally accepted that human resources are limited and not scalable into a one-on-one teaching ratio. Of course, the semantics involved in technology enabled personalisation differs completely from human-to-human personal interactions. In technical terms, it translates into behaviour adaptation to facilitate human computer interaction (such as adhering to technical interoperability standards) or to computer driven decision making (as in “smart” or “intelligent” tools). While this has its merits perhaps in terms of efficiency of learning, it is a galaxy apart from human personalisation, which is based on things like boundary negotiations, respect, or interpersonal “chemistry”. It remains to be seen how the idea of “personalisation” can develop without sacrificing human flexibility and societal congruence. Here are four oft encountered myths around personalisation:
(1) Personalisation is scalable
It is difficult to believe that technology can somehow better serve the individual than a human teacher. Yes, it can serve more people at the same time, but this doesn’t necessarily fit all people on a personal level. A case in hand are MOOCs: large (massive) participation numbers, served by technology dishing out educational resources. Do the learners feel personalised? Probably not as the high drop out rates would suggest or the recent introduction of “flesh-and-blood teachers” by MIT. Maybe MOOCs are scalable but aren’t a good example for personalisation apart from allowing time/space/pace flexibility. However, in general, we can question whether industrialised personalisation or the mass-production of individual learning will ever work.
(2) Personalisation makes better learners
Learning isn’t driven by intrinsic virtues alone. One of the key learning theories, Vygotski’s zone of proximal development, argues strongly for how humans can excel with the help of others. It’s pushing the boundaries that makes them better learners. Personalisation in the sense of letting everyone learn what they would naturally and intrinsically learn has been tried in schooling experiments for quite some time with rather poor results. Some good things, like serendipitous learning will only happen if there are external stimuli. But also corporate knowledge and services could not be upheld if learning was completely individualised. Furthermore, personalised learning doesn’t normally include “learning to learn” components.
Putting the individual in the foreground maybe a nice line to present in technology enhanced learning, but often misses the socialisation aspects of learning that are required for forming a coherently educated democratic society. Human interactions with computer agents will not lead to better citizens since it neglects that aspect of socialisation (not to be confused with social, as in “social networks”). Socialisation involves the development of competences such as tolerance, respect, politeness, agreement, group behaviour, team spirit etc. Computer agents, on the other hand, are driven by mediocrity, algorithms and rules that are non-negotiable. You cannot argue with an “intelligent” machine how to come to a suitable compromise.
(3) Personalisation makes society better and more equal
Personalising the experience of individual learners does not make learning more relevant to them. As we see in many instances like personalised search engines, it leads to more isolation instead of more congruence with others. This leads away from the commons and the common good. It is comparable to mass producing Randian heros of selfish desires, hence I cannot see a benefit for society or equal opportunities.
(4) Abolishing marks makes learning more personal
Learning without pressure and comparison is a noble idea, but contradicts human nature. We are social animals and live with interacting and counteracting other parts of our environment. Gaming theory tells us that in among the oldest parts of our brains it is genetically hard-coded to compete with others, against time, or even with ourselves. We humans need position. We need to know how we compare to others. Others too need to know how we compare to others. Taking school grades away will not make learning more personal in the sense of more self-directed and to your own devices. External pressure is sometimes needed to grow into a challenge.
Even if technical support for personal learning needs would work, we have to ask where this might lead us. Our societies are based on some commonly agreed upon educational standards, such as levels or qualifications reached, or the grading system. It is not to defend these structures, but if we abolish them or change them, something else would have to take their place. Society needs a standardised educational currency to distinguish expertise from pretense. Competence levels and badges are alternative approaches, welcome in their concept, reach and effect, but yet another educational standard structure.