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.


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