Not another brick in the wall: is personalised learning the future?
As many parents and children gear-up for the October half term, it's hard to believe that the new school year is already well underway. 10 years ago, I was getting over the shock of my first few weeks as a new secondary school teacher with TeachFirst. I was terrified and the half-term break came as a much-needed break.
I only lasted two years as a teacher, and they remain the hardest two years of my career so far. What I learnt in that short period of time was that the best teachers never appeared to teach the same lesson twice. They were able to personalise each lesson to the class and often the individual student by adapting what they did to reflect the existing skills, knowledge and learning style of that class, or child.
So how did they do it?
To do it well, personalisation of learning requires:
- detailed information about the student - what do they already know and understand? How do they best learn?
- knowledge of the best methods for linking new educational content to a student's existing understanding
- sufficient time spent with the learner to apply the above.
Achieving this is extremely hard, especially for time poor, overstretched teachers in the UK state sector.
I regret that in my brief teaching career I never managed to deliver that level of personalisation; it remained a mysterious art practised only - as far as I could see - by passionate educationalists with 10, 20, 30 years' experience.
The lack of personalisation in the school classroom is now driving a boom in private tutoring for the children of families who can afford it, increasing the gap in educational attainment between the wealthiest and poorest children in the UK.
Is technology the answer?
Now, rather than teaching I find myself looking at investment opportunities in educational technology. At Nesta Impact Investments we believe that technology may offer a way to deliver personalisation of learning in an accessible, affordable and inherently scalable way. So called "adaptive learning" technologies appear to codify and automate that mysterious art of personalisation I observed 10 years ago.
Ventures like Knewton, Smart Sparrow, Sherston and the Open Learning Initiative have adaptive technologies that enable learners to receive content that is selected according to their learning needs. Publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are rapidly deploying their learning content through adaptive platforms. While currently more prevalent in the US and in higher education, it can't be long before these technologies hit the classrooms of the UK.
But to be really effective we need detailed information about the learner, and I'm not sure any of the tools out there yet have built rich enough data sets to do that, especially as they are often isolated systems.
In other domains, from financial services, relationships, shopping, and increasingly health, organisations are working out how to capture and integrate data about users from multiple sources. They know who I am, my actions, behaviours and preferences and use that to serve up offers that appeal to me, or may influence my decisions and behaviours.
I think adaptive learning technology could play a major part in bringing personalised learning to all school students, but we need to ensure that teachers and technologists have really great data on what learners know and how they best learn.