There is a tension in education caused by two ways we perceive the value of technology and how we use it. On the one hand, technology is understood to be a great organiser, where scale is no object, and reassurance is found in the reports it produces. It organises information well by indexing, cataloging, sorting and listing. Technology brings order and control to large scale activity and endeavour. However, every student has a unique reason and context for studying and with student numbers comes greater risk of a tension between the freedom to explore learning and the desire to control it by the institution. Ordered learning can stifle individual revelation.
The tension comes from the technology revolution that moved us all from working as thousands on one platform to each of us having our own suite of custom platforms. We are seeing on the one hand the property of technology to create order through compliance, and through personalisation, against creativity, as unique as the individual who wields the technology. The wider world now accommodates the ‘personalisation’ revolution but in our education world, it means the models of batch education or rank and file classes no longer feel satisfactory. We really don’t all need to be facing the same wall to learn anymore with the same starting and finishing points. One of the joys of education are the new ideas it generates; it creates and shares the experiences and ideas of students on their journey, fashioned in the serendipity of the moment and the desire to capture it.
But it is possible to see beauty both in order and creation. The tension arises from the desire of those that manage education to be drawn to and rely on the former, whilst the pull on teachers and their students is to ever great degrees of personalisation and unique learning journeys.
We can describe this problem as the tensions between personalisation and standardisation and it comes about because we can’t find a way to have the words ‘personal’ and ‘standard’ in the same sentence.
Organisations see technology as a means to achieve order. We achieve it at the expense of asking for compliance (everyone must follow the same process), uniformity (everyone must follow the same actions) and completeness (everyone must do the same thing), which in turn harms the ability of technology to create the unique learning experience we tell our students they will enjoy.
It’s easy to see how this comes about. If we are organising a database for example for paying car tax, then order and regularity makes sense because we expect everyone to behave in the same manner and want the same thing in using the service. We can predict very accurately the behaviour of each applicant and formulate the software to match it. But it has a very limited place in learning itself because the outcome of education needs to take account of students as individuals who are a mass of conflicting requirements.
We also want education to be progressive which means the best learning journeys are those where the next steps are informed by it’s own progression and not always prescribed in the traditional sense of learning.
The stress lines occur around the issue of personalisation of education. Ideally we want everyone to follow their own path in education because every student comes to formal learning with a personal context, circumstances and set of requirements. But personalisation is not clean, efficient, nor easily measurable and all this non-compliance confounds the very systems set up to administer our organisations. At the moment, the best technology seems to be those systems that are best able to bend and make exceptions without falling over. It is why technology is considered ‘robust’ rather than good.
Can we find a way to standardise the personal?
What we want is to get the best out of both approaches and it can be done by using the advantage of order and scalability to support the administration of learning and personalisation to capture uniqueness of experience in teaching and learning. In short it is an acceptance that in using technology there is a split between the administration of learning and the enterprise of learning. This split uses different technologies to different purposes.
It is the temptation to conflate the two leads to a fall in the quality of learning.
The whole joy of technology for individuals generally, and even more so in education is that it opens up new possibilities at every discovery for every student; giving a genuinely progressive form of education. We can talk about stretching horizons, making experiences appear ‘first hand’, deepen the quality of thinking and learning, provide room to encourage ideas to form, allowing exploration where the student wants to go, supporting reflective thinking and collaborative learning. From a student perspective it allows these unique learning journeys and peculiar explorations, to be guided by a teacher, driven by student curiosity and imagination. As a result it brings pleasure in learning, sharpens imagination, feeds curiosity, makes demands of intelligence, rewards imagination, celebrates the unforeseen and excites with the new.
Sadly, it is in the gift of every institution to take the fun out of that exploration in order to ensure compliance and standardisation. Rather than finding a balance it might be better to see them as separate purposes and treat them as such. One in the control of managers of learning and the other under the guidance of teachers.