Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Engagement and Personalized Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 11, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, November 11, 2008.

Responding to David Wiley, Lying About Personalized Learning.

OK, I think we can all agree that having a student interact with nothing but a computer program - no matter how personalized - is a poor substitute for a proper program of learning.

This is not to say that such interactions cannot be employed very productively for spot duty - for example, students can learn to program a computer using an interactive module, create Flash animations through a series of computer demonstrations, or practice learning a language in a self-teaching manual.

Learning, though, when viewed more widely, typically involves some sort of interaction with others. This is not because 'humans are inherently social' or any such thesis about human nature but because what they are learning is composed to a large degree of social constructs - vocabularies, ways of living, ways of practice, and the rest.

So we want to include a dimension of social interaction in our online learning. We want students to engage with communities composed of practitioners, learners, instructors and mentors. And we want to organize these interactions in a way that best suits individual learners. 'Personalized learning' in this context means not merely personalized content but personalized interactions.

But we need to cash out what that means. As Daniel Lemire points out, while students can be a font of communications activities, not all of it will be useful or manageable for other people in the network. His experience is my experience - given carte blanche we can expect the full range from serious, detailed enquiries to long strings of questions semantically equivalent to a child asking "why... why... why?" The purpose of such questions can also range variously from genuine attempts to learn to facile attempts to annoy and irritate.

Thus, because we want to respect the need of others in the course - other students, instructors, mentors, and the like - to manage their own time and their own interactions, it follows that personalized interaction is not simply interaction tailored to the needs of an individual learner. It must be the result of a negotiation of process rather than a one-way catering to an individual learner's needs and wants.

It is in this negotiation that the creation of the social environment of learning is created. It is in this negotiation that social learning consists. There is no 'zone of proximal development' of other such fictitious 'common' ground in which learner and mentor share some space - there is rather a series of trials and errors on the part of each in an attempt to negotiate an interaction, a mechanism for communication, a transaction, an engagement.

'Personalized learning' is therefore the creation of a mechanism in which this negotiation for engagement can take place. It is the creation of engagement opportunities - as Nancy White said this week, of 'invitations', of communication ports and protocols, of learning mechanisms on the part of both student and mentor. Much of this negotiation process is automated (as is, for example, our communications networks of telephones or email or RSS feeds) but the actual communication results in the end only from one human sending messages to another.

This does not man each instructor engages in a complete process of negotiation with each student. This mechanism - the supposed paragon of 'personal instruction' is neither expected nor desired. Not expected, because such a mechanism would require an immense resource of instructors, which society cannot sustain. Not desired, because the range of interactive possibilities would be limited to those that only two people could provide, and therefore insufficiently diverse to foster complexity of thought and understanding.

Engagement with a mentor or instructor, in such an environment, is typically the result of a larger set of interactions, a series of negotiations that occurs with members of a community as a whole, of negotiations with other learners (often resulting in a 'student subculture' within the community), with some more advanced learners, with practitioners, and with mentors and leaders of the community.

Any given negotiation build on the many negotiations that preceeded it - just as any given conversation in a language (English, say) builds on each participants' previous learning and practice in that language. That does not mean that no further negotiation is necessary - typically, understandings of language vary widely - but it does reduce to a significant degree the negotiation required in a particular case.

So how do we understand 'personalized learning' in this context? It is the establishment of a mechanism (which may or may not be a technical mechanism - it could even be nothing more than a bunch of people standing in a field) whereby each individual can participate in the creation of engagement with others, where such engagements are directly negotiated by the participants to meet their own individual needs or interests.

P.S. - On Communication

One way of viewing communication it to imagine us with a sheet between us, where we communicate by touching the sheet, producing impressions seen on the other side. Nothing actually passes from one side to the other - our minds do not touch directly, and do not transmit anything directly into one another. We have only the impressions we can make on the sheet, and those that we see in the sheet from other people.

It is tempting - and many many philosophers have taken this turn - to suppose that the sheet is tself what we have in common with each other. That this sheet is something that we share, and that communication is this centered on this shared environment, shared meaning (where meaning is fully defined by whatever is seen and felt on the sheet).

But this view is mistaken. There is not in fact a single sheet dividing us. Each of us has our own personal sheets - we are completely surrounded by these sheets, and while these sheets may touch on other sheets, and be impacted by other sheets, we have no way of knowing whether we are touching one person or another, or even whether we are touching people or trees or animal spirits or nothing at all.

We can infer to the presence and existence of other people, but the supposition that we have anything in common with these people is but itself an inference of the same kind, and less well supported than any conclusion it seeks to establish, and therefore an artifac of, and not a foundation for, our theories of communication.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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