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440px-HydraOrganization_HeadLike the mythical monster, the ancient Hydra organisation of Marvel Comics grows two more heads if one is cut off, becoming more powerful in the process. With the most advanced technology on the planet and with a particular focus on data gathering, Hydra operates through international corporations and highly-placed individuals in national governments.
Personalized learning has also been around for centuries. Its present incarnation can be traced to the individualized instructional programmes of the late 19th century which ‘focused on delivering specific subject matter […] based on the principles of scientific management. The intent was to solve the practical problems of the classroom by reducing waste and increasing efficiency, effectiveness, and cost containment in education (Januszewski, 2001: 58). Since then, personalized learning has adopted many different names, including differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, individually guided education, programmed instruction, personalized learning, personalized instruction, and individually prescribed instruction.
Disambiguating the terms has never been easy. In the world of language learning / teaching, it was observed back in the early 1970s ‘that there is little agreement on the description and definition of individualized foreign language instruction’ (Garfinkel, 1971: 379). The point was echoed a few years later by Grittner (1975: 323): it ‘means so many things to so many different people’. A UNESCO document (Chaix & O’Neil, 1978: 6) complained that ‘the term ‘individualization’ and the many expressions using the same root, such as ‘individualized learning’, are much too ambiguous’. Zoom forward to the present day and nothing has changed. Critiquing the British government’s focus on personalized learning, the Institute for Public Policy Research (Johnson, 2004: 17) wrote that it ‘remains difficult to be certain what the Government means by personalised learning’. In the U.S. context, a piece by Sean Cavanagh (2014) in Education Week (which is financially supported by the Gates Foundation) noted that although ‘the term “personalized learning” seems to be everywhere, there is not yet a shared understanding of what it means’. In short, as Arthur Levine  has put it, the words personalized learning ‘generate more heat than light’.
Despite the lack of clarity about what precisely personalized learning actually is, it has been in the limelight of language teaching and learning since before the 1930s when Pendleton (1930: 195) described the idea as being more widespread than ever before. Zoom forward to the 1970s and we find it described as ‘one of the major movements in second-language education at the present time’ (Chastain, 1975: 334). In 1971, it was described as ‘a bandwagon onto which foreign language teachers at all levels are jumping’ (Altman & Politzer, 1971: 6). A little later, in the 1980s, ‘words or phrases such as ‘learner-centered’, ‘student-centered’, ‘personalized’, ‘individualized’, and ‘humanized’ appear as the most frequent modifiers of ‘instruction’ in journals and conferences of foreign language education (Altman & James, 1980). Continue to the present day, and we find that personalized learning is at the centre of the educational policies of governments across the world. Between 2012 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Education threw over half a billion dollars at personalized learning initiatives (Bulger, 2016: 22). At the same time, there is massive sponsorship of personalized learning from the biggest international corporations (the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Rogers Family Foundation, Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation) (Bulger, 2016: 22). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested nearly $175 million in personalized learning development and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is ploughing billions of dollars into it.
There has, however, been one constant: the belief that technology can facilitate the process of personalization (whatever that might be). Technology appears to offer the potential to realise the goal of personalized learning. We have come a long way from Sydney Pressey’s attempts in the 1920s to use teaching machines to individualize instruction. At that time, the machines were just one part of the programme (and not the most important). But each new technology has offered a new range of possibilities to be exploited and each new technology, its advocates argue, ‘will solve the problems better than previous efforts’ (Ferster, 2014: xii). With the advent of data-capturing learning technologies, it has now become virtually impossible to separate advocacy of personalized instruction from advocacy of digitalization in education. As the British Department for Education has put it ‘central to personalised learning is schools’ use of data (DfES (2005) White Paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All. London, Department for Education and Skills, para 4.50). When the U.S. Department of Education threw half a billion dollars at personalized learning initiatives, the condition was that these projects ‘use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction’ (Bulger, 2016: 22).
Is it just a coincidence that the primary advocates of personalized learning are either vendors of technology or are very close to them in the higher echelons of Hydra (World Economic Forum, World Bank, IMF, etc.)? ‘Personalized learning’ has ‘almost no descriptive value’: it is ‘a term that sounds good without the inconvenience of having any obviously specific pedagogical meaning’ (Feldstein & Hill, 2016: 30). It evokes positive responses, with its ‘nod towards more student-centered learning […], a move that honors the person learning not just the learning institution’ (Watters, 2014). As such, it is ‘a natural for marketing purposes’ since nobody in their right mind would want unpersonalized or depersonalized learning (Feldstein & Hill, 2016: 25). It’s ‘a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy?’ (Chomsky, 1997).
None of the above is intended to suggest that there might not be goals that come under the ‘personalized learning’ umbrella that are worth working towards. But that’s another story – one I will return to in another post. For the moment, it’s just worth remembering that, in one of the Marvel Comics stories, Captain America, who appeared to be fighting the depersonalized evils of the world, was actually a deep sleeper agent for Hydra.

References
Altman, H.B. & James, C.V. (eds.) 1980. Foreign Language Teaching: Meeting Individual Needs. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Bulger, M. 2016. Personalized Learning: The Conversations We’re Not Having. New York: Data and Society Research Institute.
Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week
Chaix, P., & O’Neil, C. 1978. A Critical Analysis of Forms of Autonomous Learning (Autodidaxy and Semi-autonomy in the Field of Foreign Language Learning. Final Report. UNESCO Doc Ed 78/WS/58
Chastain, K. 1975. ‘An Examination of the Basic Assumptions of “Individualized” Instruction’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 334 – 344
Chomsky, N. 1997. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press
Feldstein, M. & Hill, P. 2016. ‘Personalized Learning: What it Really is and why it Really Matters’ EduCause Review March / April 2016: 25 – 35
Ferster, B. 2014. Teaching Machines. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Garfinkel, A. 1971. ‘Stanford University Conference on Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction, May 6-8, 1971.’ The Modern Language Journal Vol. 55, No. 6 (Oct., 1971), pp. 378-381
Grittner, F. M. 1975. ‘Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 323 – 333
Januszewski, A. 2001. Educational Technology: The Development of a Concept. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited
Johnson, M. 2004. Personalised Learning – an Emperor’s Outfit? London: Institute for Public Policy Research
Pendleton, C. S. 1930. ‘Personalizing English Teaching’ Peabody Journal of Education 7 / 4: 195 – 200
Watters, A. 2014. The problem with ‘personalization’ Hack Education

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Introduction

In the last post, I looked at issues concerning self-pacing in personalized language learning programmes. This time, I turn to personalized goal-setting. Most definitions of personalized learning, such as that offered by Next Generation Learning Challenges http://nextgenlearning.org/ (a non-profit supported by Educause, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, among others), argue that ‘the default perspective [should be] the student’s—not the curriculum, or the teacher, and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.’ It’s a perspective shared by the United States National Education Technology Plan 2017 https://tech.ed.gov/netp/ , which promotes the idea that learning objectives should vary based on learner needs, and should often be self-initiated. It’s shared by the massively funded Facebook initiative that is developing software that ‘puts students in charge of their lesson plans’, as the New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/10/technology/facebook-helps-develop-software-that-puts-students-in-charge-of-their-lesson-plans.html?_r=0 put it. How, precisely, personalized goal-setting can be squared with standardized, high-stakes testing is less than clear. Are they incompatible by any chance?

In language learning, the idea that learners should have some say in what they are learning is not new, going back, at least, to the humanistic turn in the 1970s. Wilga Rivers advocated ‘giving the students opportunity to choose what they want to learn’ (Rivers, 1971: 165). A few years later, Renee Disick argued that the extent to which a learning programme can be called personalized (although she used the term ‘individualized’) depends on the extent to which learners have a say in the choice of learning objectives and the content of learning (Disick, 1975). Coming more up to date, Penny Ur advocated giving learners ‘a measure of freedom to choose how and what to learn’ (Ur, 1996: 233).

The benefits of personalized goal-setting

Personalized goal-setting is closely related to learner autonomy and learner agency. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any meaningful sense of learner autonomy or agency without some control of learning objectives. Without this control, it will be harder for learners to develop an L2 self. This matters because ‘ultimate attainment in second-language learning relies on one’s agency … [it] is crucial at the point where the individuals must not just start memorizing a dozen new words and expressions but have to decide on whether to initiate a long, painful, inexhaustive, and, for some, never-ending process of self-translation. (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000: 169 – 170). Put bluntly, if learners ‘have some responsibility for their own learning, they are more likely to be engaged than if they are just doing what the teacher tells them to’ (Harmer, 2012: 90). A degree of autonomy should lead to increased motivation which, in turn, should lead to increased achievement (Dickinson, 1987: 32; Cordova & Lepper, 1996: 726).

Strong evidence for these claims is not easy to provide, not least since autonomy and agency cannot be measured. However, ‘negative evidence clearly shows that a lack of agency can stifle learning by denying learners control over aspects of the language-learning process’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 91). Most language teachers (especially in compulsory education) have witnessed the negative effects that a lack of agency can generate in some students. Irrespective of the extent to which students are allowed to influence learning objectives, the desirability of agency / autonomy appears to be ‘deeply embedded in the professional consciousness of the ELT community’ (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012; Benson, 2016: 341). Personalized goal-setting may not, for a host of reasons, be possible in a particular learning / teaching context, but in principle it would seem to be a ‘good thing’.

Goal-setting and technology

The idea that learners might learn more and better if allowed to set their own learning objectives is hardly new, dating back at least one hundred years to the establishment of Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini. In language teaching, the interest in personalized learning that developed in the 1970s (see my previous post) led to numerous classroom experiments in personalized goal-setting. These did not result in lasting changes, not least because the workload of teachers became ‘overwhelming’ (Disick, 1975: 128).

Closely related was the establishment of ‘self-access centres’. It was clear to anyone, like myself, who was involved in the setting-up and maintenance of a self-access centre, that they cost a lot, in terms of both money and work (Ur, 2012: 236). But there were also nagging questions about how effective they were (Morrison, 2005). Even more problematic was a bigger question: did they actually promote the learner autonomy that was their main goal?

Post-2000, online technology rendered self-access centres redundant: who needs the ‘walled garden’ of a self-access centre when ‘learners are able to connect with multiple resources and communities via the World Wide Web in entirely individual ways’ (Reinders, 2012)? The cost problem of self-access centres was solved by the web. Readily available now were ‘myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students’ needs’ (Cavanagh, 2014). Not only that … online technology promised to grant agency, to ‘empower language learners to take charge of their own learning’ and ‘to provide opportunities for learners to develop their L2 voice’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 32). The dream of personalized learning has become inseparable from the affordances of educational technologies.

It is, however, striking just how few online modes of language learning offer any degree of personalized goal-setting. Take a look at some of the big providers – Voxy, Busuu, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Babbel, for example – and you will find only the most token nods to personalized learning objectives. Course providers appear to be more interested in claiming their products are personalized (‘You decide what you want to learn and when!’) than in developing a sufficient amount of content to permit personalized goal-setting. We are left with the ELT equivalent of personalized cans of Coke: a marketing tool.

coke_cans

The problems with personalized goal-setting

Would language learning products, such as those mentioned above, be measurably any better if they did facilitate the personalization of learning objectives in a significant way? Would they be able to promote learner autonomy and agency in a way that self-access centres apparently failed to achieve? It’s time to consider the square quotes that I put around ‘good thing’.

Researchers have identified a number of potential problems with goal-setting. I have already mentioned the problem of reconciling personalized goals and standardized testing. In most learning contexts, educational authorities (usually the state) regulate the curriculum and determine assessment practices. It is difficult to see, as Campbell et al. (Campbell et al., 2007: 138) point out, how such regulation ‘could allow individual interpretations of the goals and values of education’. Most assessment systems ‘aim at convergent outcomes and homogeneity’ (Benson, 2016: 345) and this is especially true of online platforms, irrespective of their claims to ‘personalization’. In weak (typically internal) assessment systems, the potential for autonomy is strongest, but these are rare.

In all contexts, it is likely that personalized goal-setting will only lead to learning gains when a number of conditions are met. The goals that are chosen need to be both specific, measurable, challenging and non-conflicting (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2-3). They need to be realistic: if not, it is unlikely that self-efficacy (a person’s belief about their own capability to achieve or perform to a certain level) will be promoted (Koda-Dallow & Hobbs, 2005), and without self-efficacy, improved performance is also unlikely (Bandura, 1997). The problem is that many learners lack self-efficacy and are poor self-regulators. These things are teachable / learnable, but require time and support. Many learners need help in ‘becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). If they do not get it, the potential advantages of personalized goal-setting will be negated. As learners become better self-regulators, they will want and need to redefine their learning goals: goal-setting should be an iterative process (Hussey & Smith, 2003: 358). Again, support will be needed. In online learning, such support is not common.

A further problem that has been identified is that goal-setting can discourage a focus on non-goal areas (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2) and can lead to ‘a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it’ (Locke & Latham, 2006: 266). We know that much language learning is messy and incidental. Students do not only learn the particular thing that they are studying at the time (the belief that they do was described by Dewey as ‘the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies’). Goal-setting, even when personalized, runs the risk of promoting tunnel-vision.

The incorporation of personalized goal-setting in online language learning programmes is, in so many ways, a far from straightforward matter. Simply tacking it onto existing programmes is unlikely to result in anything positive: it is not an ‘over-the-counter treatment for motivation’ (Ordóñez et al.:2). Course developers will need to look at ‘the complex interplay between goal-setting and organizational contexts’ (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 16). Motivating students is not simply ‘a matter of the teacher deploying the correct strategies […] it is an intensely interactive process’ (Lamb, M. 2017). More generally, developers need to move away from a positivist and linear view of learning as a technical process where teaching interventions (such as the incorporation of goal-setting, the deployment of gamification elements or the use of a particular algorithm) will lead to predictable student outcomes. As Larry Cuban reminds us, ‘no persuasive body of evidence exists yet to confirm that belief (Cuban, 1986: 88). The most recent research into personalized learning has failed to identify any single element of personalization that can be clearly correlated with improved outcomes (Pane et al., 2015: 28).

In previous posts, I considered learning styles and self-pacing, two aspects of personalized learning that are highly problematic. Personalized goal-setting is no less so.

References

Bandura, A. 1997. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company

Benson, P. 2016. ‘Learner Autonomy’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge. pp.339 – 352

Borg, S. & Al-Busaidi, S. 2012. ‘Teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding learner autonomy’ ELT Journal 66 / 3: 283 – 292

Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09pl-overview.h34.html

Cordova, D. I. & Lepper, M. R. 1996. ‘Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice’ Journal of Educational Psychology 88 / 4: 715 -739

Cuban, L. 1986. Teachers and Machines. New York: Teachers College Press

Dickinson, L. 1987. Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Harmer, J. 2012. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson Education

Hussey, T. & Smith, P. 2003. ‘The Uses of Learning Outcomes’ Teaching in Higher Education 8 / 3: 357 – 368

Lamb, M. 2017 (in press) ‘The motivational dimension of language teaching’ Language Teaching 50 / 3

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. 2006. ‘New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory’ Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 / 5: 265 – 268

McMahon, M. & Oliver, R. (2001). Promoting self-regulated learning in an on-line environment. In C. Montgomerie & J. Viteli (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (pp. 1299-1305). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Morrison, B. 2005. ‘Evaluating learning gain in a self-access learning centre’ Language Teaching Research 9 / 3: 267 – 293

Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. 2009. Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D. & Hamilton, L. S. 2015. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Seattle: Rand Corporation

Pavlenko, A. & Lantolf, J. P. 2000. ‘Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves’ In J.P. Lantolf (ed.), Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 155 – 177

Reinders, H. 2012. ‘The end of self-access? From walled garden to public park’ ELT World Online 4: 1 – 5

Rivers, W. M. 1971. ‘Techniques for Developing Proficiency in the Spoken Language in an Individualized Foreign Language program’ in Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. pp. 165 – 169

Ur, P. 1996. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ur, P. 2012. A Course in English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Vandergriff, I. Second-language Discourse in the Digital World. 2016. Amsterdam: John Benjamins