When giving keynotes at conferences over the past two years, I have observed that some of the best non-verbal feedback occurs when pointing out that personalized and adaptive learning does not equal black-box algorithms choosing content for students. Yes, there are plenty of approaches pitching that solution (Knewton in its early state being the best-known if not most-current example), but there are other approaches designed to give faculty or instructional designers control over learning paths or even to give students control. There seems to be a sense of relief, particularly from faculty members, when discussing the latter approach.
In the Empire State College case study on e-Literate TV, I found the conversation Michael had with [faculty member] Maya Richardson to be a great example of not just giving faculty insight into student learning but also giving students control over their own learning. As Maya explains, this is particularly important for the working adult population going back to school. The software used in this pedagogical approach is CogBooks.
Michael Feldstein:While so-called personalized learning programs are sometimes criticized for moving students lockstep through a linear process, Maya emphasizes the choice and control that students have regarding how they go through the content.
Maya Richardson:What it is—it’s a concept mapping, so they take concepts here, concepts here, and then there’s a split-off, and those concepts then split off and then split off and split off. And then, depending on the student, now students can go, “OK, I understood that concept. I already know that concept, so I don’t need to go to that one right now. I can skip and go here.” This is where the individualized and personalized learning comes in—like a smorgasbord, you pick and choose what you want to learn.
And then you come in; you do the discussion, and you either have more to add to it and a greater enrichment of the experience for yourself but also for your classmates. Then there are those who go, “OK, I need to go through each one of these, step by step, and learn each one, and then move down to learning these and then these and then these and then these,” and then at the end, they’ve gotten so much more out of it.
Maya then goes on to describe her visibility enabled by this pedagogical approach – not just of which concepts the student has mastered but also the learning process and choices that the student makes.
Maya Richardson:It’s that kind of opportunity that I can now watch and go, “OK, so you’re the kind of learner that I can just basically let you go and do what you need to do. I am not going to be interrupting your learning path because you have a very positive learning path. I can watch you do this. “It’s a great pattern. You’re going for it,” and I’m just going, “Wonderful. Just come in, do the discussion, do your test,” and I’m like, “A-student, perfect, great, way to go.” Then I see the ones that sort of the sporadic. They come in, they touch and go, and I go, “OK, let me see how you’re doing.”
There’s a lot more in this conversation, but I want to skip ahead a minute or so in the conversation to this key point about student control, or agency.
Michael Feldstein:Maya and her colleagues are thoughtful about how this kind of software fits with the holistic approach that ESC takes towards education.
Maya Richardson:The personalized learning part of it is taking ownership. I think it motivates. As an adult learner, it’s really important to find that you have some control over—when I go in, I know what I want to learn. I hope I know what I want to learn, and I hope I learn it at the end.
There are disciplines and contexts where adaptive algorithms choosing appropriate content makes sense, but I find that too often this is the assumption for all of personalized learning. This example from Empire State College illuminates the growing importance of student control, especially for the growing working adult populations.