In FutureLearn’s MOOCs, Conversation Powers Learning at Massive Scale

By Mike Sharples

Personalized learning in most MOOCs is the opposite of social. Students learn better when they engage in conversation

Illustration: iStockphoto

“Personalized learning” is one of the hottest trends in education these days. The idea is to create software that tracks the progress of each student and then adapts the content, pace of instruction, and assessment to the individual’s performance. These systems succeed by providing immediate feedback that addresses the student’s misunderstandings and offers additional instruction and materials.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has reportedly spent more than US $300 million on personalized learning R&D, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—the investment and philanthropic company created by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan—has also signalled its commitment to personalized learning (which Zuckerberg announced on Facebook, of course). Just last month, the two groups teamed up for the first time to jointly fund a $12 million program to promote personalized classroom instruction.

But personalized learning is hard to do. It requires breaking down a topic into its component parts in order to create different pathways through the material. It can be done, with difficulty, for well-structured and well-established topics, such as algebra and computer programming. But it really can’t be done for subjects that don’t form neat chunks, such as economics or psychology, nor for still-evolving areas, such as cybersecurity.

What’s more, this latest wave of personalized learning may have the unintended consequence of isolating students because it ignores the biggest advance in education of the past 50 years: learning through cooperation and conversation. It’s ironic that the inventor of the world’s leading social media platform is promoting education that’s the opposite of social.

Interestingly, one early proponent of personalized learning had a far more expansive view. In the 1960s, Gordon Pask, a deeply eccentric British scientist who pioneered the application of cybernetics to entertainment, architecture, and education, co-invented the first commercial adaptive teaching machine, which trained typists in keyboard skills and adjusted the training to their personal characteristics. A decade later, Pask extended personalized learning into a grand unified theory of learning as conversation.

For the layperson and even for a lot of experts, Pask’s Conversation Theory is impenetrable. But for those who manage to grasp it, it’s quite exciting. In essence, it explains how language-using systems, including people and artificial intelligences, can come to know things through well-structured conversation. He proposed that all human learning involves conversation. We converse with ourselves when we relate new experience to what we already know. We converse with teachers when we respond to their questions and they correct our misunderstandings. We converse with other learners to reach agreement.

This is more than an abstract theory of learning. It is a blueprint for designing educational technology. Pask himself developed teaching machines that conversed with students in a formalized language, represented as dynamic maps of interconnected concepts. He also introduced conversational teaching methods, such as Teachback, where the student explains to the teacher what has just been …read more

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