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?

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:


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.