Choice, Personalisation and Learning

Bob Fryer’s (new role as NHS National Director for Widening Participation in Learning) take on the e-learning agenda came from a slightly different perspective from other delegates. His passion was located in the notion of citizenship and identifying the implications for what might be called an ‘e-social agenda’! That is how can we ensure e-learning does not further disadvantage those on the margins of society?

Bob posed a number of questions and observations to stimulate discussion. The overarching question being “what questions are we trying to solve and what are the right questions?”.

Bob identified four ‘high level’ core questions:

• What challenges of the emergent world must be met for learners to thrive?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of ‘personalisation’ in meeting those challenges?
• How can e-enablement enhance those strengths and those weaknesses?
• Can all of this be squared with the core purposes and values of learning, including its ‘public value’?

The questions were developed into a series of sub questions, observations, and problems:

• what is the character of citizenship and what are the character of the learners?
• what kind of learning supports learners to thrive in the risk society?
• There are doubts about the capacity and flexibility of traditional and existing educational institutions
• at the heart of a notion of personalisation is an implied moving away from mass production (a Victorian model of ‘industrial’ education)
• there is confusion between choice (and customisation) and personalisation
• where does discipline come from in personalisation?
• personalisation advantages the already advantaged
• there are poorly articulated educational theories and concepts in e-learning
• concern about an erosion of the social nature of the world we know, what does e-learning mean for community, the common good, critical reflection…..
• why ICT? Would the inclusion agenda be better served by spending the billions we do on ICT in education be better spent on work with young mothers?

Bob explained the key ideas of the ”Risk Society” (Beck) as being choice, risk, uncertainty, and fuzzy nature of boundaries. He went onto identify a fundamental barrier to change in education and thereby to addressing some of the points above as being the risk adverse nature of the powers that be in a society that is characterised by risk (referring to Beck for support in this assertion)!

In this points Bob pointed up the change from an industrial society to a post-industrial society where the ‘practice’ of mass production is increasingly replaced by one of personalisation and with this an increasingly complicated and consumer driven society. Bob then drew the parallel to education and offered his observations on Jarvis’s (2001)‘ “Emergent Model of Learning” which adds detail to the identified trend of increasing personalisation.

I have added two domains to Jarvis’s model as I believe that they should also be included. They are the applied philosophy of learning, that is do teachers see themselves as experts or as facilitators and even co-learners recognising that the increasingly students bring to the learning a great deal of experience, expertise, and knowledge especially of they are studying later on in life. I also believe that the agenda is another important domain as indicated by Bob. Is learning (particularly in HE) about the pursuit of scholarly knowledge or is it increasingly I would hope about a democratisation of the process and institutions based on notions of citizenship and social inclusion.

emergent model of learning (adapted from Jarvis 2001 – additions in Italic
Powell 2005)
Domain Traditional Emergent
Study Education Learning
Locale School/Other Institution Everywhere – work home, etc.
Time Childhood/early adulthood Lifelong and life-wide
Style Teacher centred Learner-driven
Delivery Face-to-face Distance and e-learning
Target group Universal to max school age
– elite Theory/Abstract
Specific and mass
Focus Theory and abstract Practice informed
by theory
Discipline Single Multi-disciplinary
and Learner defined
Mode Learning by rote Reflective and critical
Form Instructional Constructivist
Purpose Qualification Action/Application
Philosophy of learning Teacher as expert Teachers as facilitator
and co-learner
Agenda Pursuit of scholarly
Citizenship and
social inclusion

In all of this I think that what Bob was getting at was how do we ensure that the move to personalisation and the implied freedom and opportunity it brings doesn’t lead to individualisation and a weakening of society? He offered this quote from Dewey “Fraternity, liberty, and equality isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions… Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighbourly community”

Of course Bob is right to be concerned as it is not so long ago that main stream UK politics was driven by beliefs such as “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” (Thatcher 1987)

I could not but reflect on the Ultraversity project and how we have attempted to address some of the points raised by Bob and how the project is in many ways pioneering much of the emergent model put forward by Jarvis. We do see Ultraversity as a part of creating a more inclusive society by offering the choice of a personalised learning experience in the context of the characteristics of the risk society. Part of the philosophy underpinning UV is one of community learning and not the learner as an learning in isolation but someone with critical skills, critical understanding and critical action in the domains of Knowledge, Self, and World (Barnet 1997). The world being the wider society and implied in this are the obligations to participate positively in that wider society.

The question about discipline is a particularly thorny one for degree level learning as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has a set of subject benchmark statements produced for broad subject areas, at Honours level. These statements define the content for the 36 or so subjects identified but none fit the Ultraversity model of an undergraduate research degree in the context of workplace learning. For us, the benchmark statement is the curriculum identified by the learner through a personalised programme with the aim of developing graduate skills rather than testing learners’ ability to remember a pre-determined set of subject content. This is not an abdication of a focus for learning as this is central to the degree programme, but there is a tension with the notion of discipline, that is what is my degree in! In addition, fundamental to good research is the notion of a disciplined enquiry. Bassey (1991) advances a ‘standard’ definition of research as “Research entails systematic, critical and self-critical enquiry which aims to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.”

The barriers and support we have faced in developing Ultraversity from different individuals at APU in developing a new ‘package’ of ideas for HE learning illustrate clearly the tension between the risk society and the risk adverse nature of some of thos in positions of power. If we are to address some of the pints raised by Bob in the education system then the spirit displayed by the UV researchers and those working on the project will need to be more than tolerated as ‘small scale acts of random innovation’, but encouraged, nurtured, and supported as part of a step change in the way that we view learning in society.

Bob left us with the Jacques Delors Comission on Lifelong Learning core purposes of learning. I believe they are reflected in the Ultraversity project philosophy that we achieve to a greater or lesser extent as we struggle in a risk adverse society!

• learning to know (learning to learn, general knowledge & understanding)
• learning to do (skills, competence, practical ability in a variety of settings)
• learning to be (personal autonomy & responsibility, memory, aesthetics, ethics, communication and physical capacity)
• learning to live together (tolerance, mutual understanding, interdependence)

2 thoughts on “Choice, Personalisation and Learning

  1. Andy

    “If we are to address some of the points raised by Bob in the education system then the spirit displayed by the UV researchers and those working on the project will need to be more than tolerated as ‘small scale acts of random innovation’”

    Currently having a bit of trouble with putting this one into practice when it comes to placing work into boxes for assessment purposes. It might not be all that long before projects which can be accommodated on an old fashioned CD will be the exception rather than the rule.

  2. Stephen Powell

    I would hope so Andy, but there is a high tendency towards inertia I think. I believe the key will be when those who do try new approaches are recognised on an equal footing with those who publish research papers (the RAE process).


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