Learners in the Center

Have you ever wondered about the curiosity and excitement, the reaching for growth and exploration that we see in two-year-old humans?  Toddlers are explosive learners. They set themselves out on journeys of discovery without teachers or parents telling them where to go or how to get there. They don’t need carrots or sticks to keep them motivated, they just go. The will to learn comes from inside them. How can we nurture this innate urge to learn  throughout our lives?

Learners In The Center (LITC) is a proposed internet platform and smart phone app that learners use to support, manage and enhance their own education throughout their lives. It is a tool for integrating one’s goals and aspirations with the educational materials needed to achieve those goals. It serves as an alternative to traditional, teacher-centered schools. Through LITC, learning resources, such as texts, videos, classes and teachers from around the world, are keyed to a private catalog of knowledge and skills the user has already mastered. This enables LITC to suggest the next book to read, field trip to take, club to join, or teacher to consult on a pathway to this learner’s chosen goal. LITC suggestions are personalized by taking into account the particular situations in which this person learns best. Good teachers would like to be able to do this for each student but it isn’t humanly possible — too many students to manage and too much data to juggle. You may be a ‘soloist’, a person who prefers to absorb new information sitting quietly on your bed. Your brother might be more social, preferring to take on the same information in a group situation surrounded by noise and competitive companions. Each of you will tread different paths to the same goal of, say, the goal of becoming an astronaut.

I began to develop this idea in my 1983 paper entitled: Open Portal Schools: The Real Impact of Computer-based Education (http://www.loopcntr.net/repository/1026.pdf ). In the intervening three decades we have gained the ability to manage the huge amounts of data involved in true personalized education and to deliver digital information anywhere on the planet. This solves about a third of the LITC puzzle. Another third involves evolving our social infrastructure, that is, our ways of caring for our young people during what is now thought of as ‘the school day’ and of recognizing what they have learned if it does not take place within a fixed curriculum and standardized testing. I begin to talk about this second puzzle piece in the Open Portal Schools paper and am fleshing it out in these blog posts. To complete the puzzle we need to develop a much richer, more detailed way to describe learners, goals, environments, and learning resources. This is required to permit computers to sift through the individualized data and match learners with learning resources suited to their particular needs. Work on this is going on in universities around the world.

Today digital technology has advanced to the point where implementation of a learner-centered, life-long learning support platform is doable. LITC positions physical schools as only one resource in a large collection of learning tools accessible to every person on the planet. Compare this to using schools with their place-base, limited resources and high overhead as the basic institution of individual development. Traditional schools no longer make sense as the only option in a digital world.

We have seen many advances in personalized and project-based teaching over the past fifty years. Examples include the Open Educational Resources movement (https://www.oercommons.org), better understanding of the challenges and advantages of home schooling (https://www.oercommons.org), Open Badges (https://openbadges.org), and Sugata Mitra’s “School in the Cloud” (https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud). Learners in the Center brings these and other advances together so that both children and adults can enjoy the serious play that is learning.

The Learners in the Center Model can be thought of as a tetrahedron or pyramid. The Learner is in the middle. The four points

are: learner goals, learner characteristics, preferred environments and educational resources. Each of the four points is discussed in a separate blog post in this series, but remember, they must all be connected together to form a strong structure to support the learner in the center.

The Learner is represented as the star in the center of a four-pointed pyramid. The points are learning goals/pathways/objectives, learning environments, learning objects and learner profiles/characteristics/prior knowledge/preferences
Learner in the Center Components

Our current school systems put teachers in the center of learning environments we call classrooms. Schools give teachers full control of what, where, when and how learners are to study and how they must behave. This often stifles curiosity, puts learners in environments that distract them or make them anxious, and robs them of a sense of agency over their lives. In LITC, classrooms are just one kind of learning environment. Classrooms stand alongside kitchens, gardens, playgrounds, museums, concert halls, streets, forests, backyards and quiet, solitary spaces at home as places to learn.

Adult learners already get to choose their learning goals and where they will study or observe. Adults decide with whom and from whom they will learn. They also have a wide range of books, videos, workshops, coaches and online courses to help and guide them on their personal educational path. Can children direct their own learning as well? Certainly two year olds do. And experience with home schooling and “free schools” suggest that the young learners we now call “school-aged” can (with parental guidance) choose and access the resources they need to take a much larger role in directing their own education. 

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has forced all of us, even those who thrive in teacher-centered, physical classrooms, out of the classroom. It has removed control from teachers forcing them to pay much more attention to what motivates their students. I’ve been conducting interviews with school kids who are experiencing online teaching for the first time. These learners complain that they have never before had to be responsible for managing their own time, a skill that they, as well as colleges value highly in homeschoolers. Several junior high schoolers report amazement at how quickly they can complete their academic lessons when freed from the distractions of the classroom. When asked what they are learning beyond their assigned lessons most say, “nothing”. Further probing reveals they are learning a great deal about pet and child care, cooking, photography, computer coding and other pursuits they care about deeply but didn’t value when compelled to focus on grades and test scores.

These findings suggest that practical implementation of an online LITC system is needed right now. It would not fully replace classroom-based schools but would provide an alternative for both learners who do not thrive in classrooms and those for whom no classrooms are available. Although there are many “online schools” in existence at present, few, if any, have made the shift from teacher/school-centered to learner-centered. Instead they are ‘virtual’ or ‘simulated’ schools organized around a prescribed curriculum, age-graded and with very minimal attention to personal learner styles, preferences, interests and motivations.

To actually build an LITC system we must implement a digital infrastructure and understand the parameters needed for all people to maintain the innate curiosity and urge to learn they are born with. This is a huge task that educators, psychologists, cognitive scientist, information technologists and instructional designers have been chipping away at for several decades. Each of the four points of the LITC pyramid represents a separate database of information that is yet to be designed and built out although enough experiments have been tried to show the way. Still to be developed is a detailed method of characterizing individual learners and a matching description of each learning tool so that books, videos, and coaches can be recommended automatically. These are technical challenges that can be solved.

Perhaps more challenging are the many changes in social expectation that go along with LITC. For instance, theoretical and applied changes to the scope and sequence of teaching as currently practiced will be needed. ‘Time management’, ’emotional intelligence’, ‘awareness of individual strengths and weaknesses’ as well as ‘goal setting’ are skills youngsters will develop early in their learning careers and use lifelong. We know how to engender these skills but they are rarely taught in schools and are not evenly distributed among families. Another change will be the order and timing of when learners acquire the basic skills of reading, writing and calculating. These are likely to be mastered when the learner discovers that they are needed to reach some personal goal. There will be a much greater variety of knowledge and skills that individuals master at different ages. Social activities will revolve around non-school institutions such as interest-driven hobby clubs, sports facilities, day-care groupings and the home.


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how fragile our current, classroom-based technology really is and is forcing us to rethink both how we bring up our children and how we occupy ourselves as adults. LITC will enable us to put ourselves and our children at the center of our learning and our lives while moving our teachers and employers into the more appropriate role of guides and helpers to our self-actualization.

Personalized learning vs. simulated classrooms during school closure?

Many of us who write blogs key off each other’s posts. One of my favorites is

Computing Education Research Blog by Mark Guzdial

The following notes are my response to his latest commentary , So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning  , about a suggestion that we take advantage of enforced school closures to compare classroom with online instruction. Thank you, Mark, for your insightful comments. 

Teaching and Learning

I want to reinforce the idea that ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are very different behaviors and shouldn’t be conflated. Human ‘learning’ is always local. It manifests as change within an individual mind/body or change in the collective processes of an organization. Sometimes learning is a result of intentional teaching. Most of the time humans learn from observing other people and from spontaneously interacting with their environments. 

IMG_0500Teaching’ is a behavior performed by individuals or groups of individuals with the goal of stimulating learning in someone else. If a student fails to demonstrate, in some measurable way, that s/he has changed as the teacher intended this is not evidence that learning has not taken place. It only tells us that the teaching failed. Much may have been learned although ignored by the teacher.

Both teaching and learning always take place in an environment. As living humans we are always somewhere and that somewhere has physical and social characteristics. A classroom is a highly structured social environment designed to enhance one-to-many teaching. Sometimes classrooms also enhance learning. Sometimes, for some learners, classrooms inhibit success.

New Skills Needed

With these distinctions in mind let’s turn back to closed schools and “remote emergency teaching”. Whether the communication channel is the internet or snail mail, remote teaching happens in environments drastically different from traditional school or college classrooms. Teachers need a whole new repertory of behaviors to help their students absorb academic material. Students also need new study and social skills to adapt to this task while in their home environments. Perhaps, during this time of social and medical crisis, we educators would be wise to ease up in our efforts to teach academic subjects except when interacting with students who are intrinsically motivated to learn them. Instead, we have an opportunity to help our students explore/learn about/master/reflect on these three topics:

1. online communication. This includes how to operate the myriad features of the electronic device (computer, tablet, smart phone) you have available, how to use the software that runs on your device, how to craft the messages you choose to distribute via your device, and how to evaluate the messages you receive.

IMG_E12242. intrinsic personal interests. In physical school, teachers get to choose what students must attend to and, for the most part, have tools to enforce student compliance. This is very difficult to do in remote teaching. Therefore, now is the time for young and old learners to discover what captures and holds their attention spontaneously. 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_00853. learning styles and environmental preferences. While modern teachers may pay lip service to the idea that one student may memorize information more effectively by watching a video, another by reading a book and a third by acting in an improvised play, most classroom lessons are more mono- , than multi- media. The explosion of online information in many formats creates an opportunity for learners to experiment with and reflect on the ‘envelop’ that contains the information that interests them. Similarly, we are always in an enveloping environment of people, noise, smells, furniture, etc. while learning. My brother may find sitting on a park bench with people all around him the perfect place to read on his smart phone. I may prefer to sit at my desk computer in a warm, empty room with only the ticking of the clock for sound. My sister may thrive in a group of three friends in the living room discussing their ideas and interests with the radio blaring music and occasional dips into social media on their tablets. (It is possible to do all this while still maintaining 6 foot social distancing.)

Now Is a Good Time To Personalize

Learners who understand their own interests and preferences, know how to use their digital tools and are willing to take charge of putting themselves in a personally optimal learning environment are poised to thrive both in the current crisis and during more normal times. Isn’t this a moment when we can let academics slide a little and go for serious investigation of the skills, advantages and perils of online teaching and learning?

The Open Educative Systems Concept

To Begin, a thought experiment…

It’s summer, 2019 in the United States. What do we usually think of when we hear or read the word “education”?

  • A high school building
  • An elementary school classroom filled with kids
  • University lecture hall
  • The principal’s office
  • A diploma
  • A better job
  • ___________(fill in your answer here)

For most of us, our concept of education is intimately connected to the idea of a place where children and young adults go to meet with teachers and peers to participate in a familiar set of curricular activities intended to insure that we acquire a predetermined body of facts and skills. In the US, our primary schools have experienced “feature creep” with the addition of services such as after-school day care, meal programs and health screening. Our high schools and community colleges have become focused on job training and employment preparation. Our universities have become diversified and now offer “life-long extension courses” to their surrounding communities, professional-like sports events, basic and commercial research, hospital services, to name just a few. Maybe it’s time to refocus, to stop asking these institutions to be all things to all people.

If all our educational infrastructure suddenly evaporated and we had to start anew, what would we build? This is the thought experiment behind Open Educative Systems (OES).

What is a system?…

A system, as defined in Google’s “Dictionary”, is

noun

  1. a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.
    “the state railroad system”
    synonyms: structure, organization, order, arrangement, complex, apparatus, network;

  2. 2.
    a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.
    “a multiparty system of government”
    synonyms: method, methodology, technique, process, procedure, approach, practice, line, line of action, line of attack, attack, means, way, manner, mode, framework, modus operandi;

More specifically, a system is a set of nodes or elements connected by relationships and separated, conceptually, from its surroundings by a boundary. That boundary may be closed, so that nothing comes into or moves out of the system under consideration, or open, always a sub-system of and in communication with a larger system of which it is itself an element.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 11.34.46 AM

In the picture to the right the large circle is the boundary of Ford Middle School. Outside this boundary is the rest of the community where the school is located. The other institutions in the Ford School District, that is, the other schools, the city government agencies, other social institutions such as the YMCA, are not shown. Inside Ford Middle School there are two grades, 7 and 8, each of which has multiple classrooms. Each element in this picture is a sub-system of a larger system and could be expanded to explain its elements and relationships in greater detail. We commonly think of education in terms of the particular elements in this simple picture.

There is no a priori reason to choose one set of elements over another when visualizing or analyzing a system we find in the real world. Often, changing the units of analysis, the elements and relationships depicted, surfaces new insights about how the system functions at present. This process can highlight weaknesses, roadblocks and malfunctions in the way things are going now and open the way for positive change. It can also help us to anticipate negative outcomes from proposed changes before they are built or put into operation.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 11.28.13 AMBy using computer tools such as KUMU, this kind of systems representation can be extremely complex. This model, The Austin Social Innovation Ecosystem Map, includes individual people and their connections to local and distant organizations. It also shows which organizations are connected to each other.

Picturing Open Educative Systems…

Systems maps can also be conceptual in nature. Rather than mapping actual people, events and organizations they show theoretical structures, relationships and flows. To kick off ideas about what an ideal educative system might be constructed I looked at what conventional schools do now. School Functions

Curriculum Delivery (or teaching), administration and record keeping are prominent in every modern school. The other functions are more controversial and many public schools do them badly. As a result private schools and other private educational services have been developed and are available to those who can afford them. To improve our public educational system we frequently pour more money into the existing institutional structures, adding more responsibilities on our existing teachers and administrators and diminishing the time and energy they have to respond to existing deficiencies. What if we divided up these functions into separate but connected organizations that had the freedom to optimize their facilities and staff to serve their specific purpose. Could we go from this way of thinking about educational organizations as places with people inserted :Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 3.04.13 PM

 

to this view of functions independent of place:

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 3.06.58 PM

??

This is just an early attempt to diagram an open educative system. More nodes are needed and each node should be described and elaborated. In addition, connections showing flows of people, money, know-how, information and regulations over time will make it possible to predict whether such a system could be implemented in the real world.

What’s next?…

In the coming months I will comb through my files for notes and ideas about Open Educative Systems and add them to this blog along with new material. I’ll expand on each of the categories suggested so far and continue to add new ones. There is plenty of room here for collaborators on both theoretical and implementation levels. The original inspiration for this project came from George Leonard’s pivotal 1968 book, “Education and Ecstasy“. Our rapidly changing communications technologies are making radically different educative systems possible today. We need to explore and expand the limits of our thinking about environments for learning and teaching. Isolated experiments in new and more open educative experiences are being tried around the globe. This blog is one place we can collect this knowledge and integrate it into a systemic whole.

 

What should the role of schools be in contemporary education?

The internet has a way of scrambling our timelines. Today (16 Nov 2016) I noticed a paper “Learner-Centered Education” was recently uploaded to the Academia web site. Written by Jim Spohrer,  now Director, IBM University Programs (IBM UP), Jim discusses educational computing methods in terms of Engagement (motivation), Effectiveness (how much of the lesson students actually learn) and Viability (broad applicability in the educational sociocultural milieu). These are very contemporary issues. But, as I began reading I said to myself, “this is old stuff” — and a little searching revealed the 20 year old original publication date. Old but not resolved. In the paper, Jim asks:

What about the social and cultural infrastructure required to make it work?

This is the question Open Educative Systems addresses.

My hypothesis is that learners are transcending school systems entirely and we need to shift our units of analysis. Teachers and classrooms should join textbooks, videos, charts, etc. as “learning objects” instead of being seen as necessary and sufficient channels through which learners access teaching*. The idea that teaching must be delivered through institutions such as schools and universities is so ingrained in our thinking that imagining a different set of structures has become a global taboo.

Today, ubiquitous computer-based devices (including mobile phones) and AI algorithms have brought us to the point where true “personalized teaching”* can be implemented under learner control. When the learner is very young parents and counselors will be needed to insure children can explore in safe environments but these need not be schools as we know them.

Open Educative Systems (OES) comprise at least 10 separate but coordinating institutions:

OESpuzzle.jpg

I first wrote about this concepts in a paper “– OPEN PORTAL SCHOOLS – The Real Impact of Computer-Based Education“in 1982 and have been refining the ideas ever since. I’ll describe each of these components in separate blogs. For the moment, notice #2, #6  and #8 in the puzzle.

#2 offers, among other resources, what we now think of as school classrooms. They serve as ideal learning environments for some learners at various points on their educational path. They are no longer the only venue for either teaching or learning.

#6 is a placeholder for a function now divided among classroom teachers, school counselors, expensive private educational consultants and various psychological practitioners. Charting an individuals lifelong learning pathway is a complex task and deserves serious professional attention.

#8 has a new label since the puzzle image was created. I’m now calling this function “Care Camp”. It’s 24-7 “babysitting” for anyone of any age whose parents, adult children or custodians don’t feel comfortable leaving the person at home or in public spaces alone. It is the “in loco parentis” we now delegate to schools and the adult day care facilities for the elderly and infirm. Today, we often use schools as care camps for children whose parents are employed or otherwise unavailable to supervise their kids. In most classrooms there are many children present who are not ready, able or interested in interacting with the lessons planned by the teacher. Care camps are an alternative safe place for them to be.  Imagine being a teacher in a classroom where all the students were there voluntarily!

Later in his article, Jim talks further about his concept of viability:

“Viability is the most difficult dimension to assess, for nothing short of the development of complete curricula and test deployment in school systems will suffice to answer this question. It is going to be very difficult to examine viability, for it depends upon social cultural, and political issues as much as in evidence of engagement and effectiveness. There will be major challenges in deploying any new pedagogy in the reality of the public schools system or modern university.”

He is thinking of the viability of using computing to provide instruction in schools. In 20 years we have moved way beyond this question. Now it’s “Are schools, as we know them, viable at all?

Are you, or anyone you know, interested in pursuing this topic? Do leave a comment here.Mt.-Zion-school-house.jpg

*IMHO, ‘teaching’ should not, as it so often is, be confused with ‘learning’. Learning (by an individual, as compared to an organization) is always personal. When learning has taken place the person thinks and probably behaves differently than at the previous moment. ‘Teaching’ is an act performed by teachers, not learners (although roles can shift almost instantaneously); teachers create conditions in which they hope specific, targeted lessons will be learned. Consider that what is learned in a given educational environment may have nothing to do with the teacher’s target but it is still learning. Unless and until we are able to disentangle our notions of teaching from learning we will be severely handicapped in our ability to improve either endeavor. The current state of our schools is largely the result of this blindness.

Individualizing Education with AI

As I surf the web I find an increasing number of posts about “deep learning”… I’m always disappointed to discover the learner is a neural network computing machine, not a human – not even an animal. See, for example

Deep Learning in a Nutshell: Reinforcement Learning

I’d like to apply this kind of deep machine learning to a problem in human education: the matching of learners’ characteristics (background knowledge, learning styles and goals) with learning objects (more properly labeled “teaching objects” including Open Educational Resources, free-lance teachers and communities of practice). The machine (AI) would scan the profile of the learner and search online for the most appropriate collection of teaching objects to meet the learner’s goals given his/her abilities and background knowledge.

This is actually not a very challenging logical problem for a computer but it does involve gathering a lot of data and learning (by the machine) about which matches are useful to the learner. Two metadata considerations make this difficult to implement:

First: We don’t have very elaborated ways of describing learner characteristics. At the moment we usually note academic subject, language (natural, not machine) and educational level of the learner. There’s a lot more to know about learning styles, for example, whether the student is

  •  self-directed or other-directed
  • predominantly visual, auditory or kinesthetic
  • intellectual strengths and weaknesses (see SOI)
  • physical abilities/handicaps (accessibility)
  • solo or social (independent or classroom)

to name just a few.

Second: When we catalog teaching objects (Open Educational Resources (OER) in, say, OpenStax CNS, OERCommons, MIT’s Open CourseWare, we don’t provide the learner enough information about the resource to figure out whether s/he can benefit from the material offered.

By combining crowdsourcing of feedback on materials as learners try to use them and developing better descriptions of learners we would have the prerequisites to use deep learning AI’s to teach many more students much more effectively.

In future blogs I’ll explore learner characteristics, OER and other ideas we might use to implement a new “open educative system” that could support learning in this century better than our current classroom-teacher-school-based “educational systems” do today.

If this topic interests you, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment here or email 

oercommons-fishing

On Building an Open Educative System

 

We, in the United States and most other countries around the globe, have educational systems. They are structured around institutions called schools, colleges and universities. Most educational institutions have some sort of campus with one or more buildings within which we find classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, offices and, with luck, a library and sports facilities. They are staffed with teachers, professors, instructors, administrators, clerical workers, custodians of the physical plant and, also with luck, counselors for the students. All these people participate in activities prescribed by a curriculum. How could it be otherwise?

Well, it was “otherwise” several centuries ago and still is in what we call “underdeveloped” regions of the world. Human beings have always taught their children to survive in their surrounding environment but education, as we know it today, is a modern product. Is it the best way to acquire skills and knowledge in the 21st century? Maybe not. Our electronic communications, storage and display technologies give us the opportunity to rethink school from the ground up and that’s what we will explore on this blog site.

Stay tuned as my family and I document my grandson’s educative journey and explore new ways to organize and support human learning from conception to grave. Just so you don’t confuse what we’re talking about with the old educational infrastructure, we call it, Open Educative Systems or OES.