Adaptive Learners, Not Adaptive Learning

Some variation of adaptive or personalized learning is rumoured to “disrupt” education in the near future. Adaptive courseware providers have received extensive funding and this emerging marketplace has been referred to as the “holy grail” of education (Jose Ferreira at an EdTech Innovation conference that I hosted in Calgary in 2013). The prospects are tantalizing: each student receiving personal guidance (from software) about what she should learn next and support provided (by the teacher) when warranted. Students, in theory, will learn more effectively and at a pace that matches their knowledge needs, ensuring that everyone masters the main concepts.
The software “learns” from the students and adapts the content to each student. End result? Better learning gains, less time spent on irrelevant content, less time spent on reviewing content that the student already knows, reduced costs, tutor support when needed, and so on. These are important benefits in being able to teach to the back row. While early results are somewhat muted (pdf), universities, foundations, and startups are diving in eagerly to grow the potential of new adaptive/personalized learning approaches.
Today’s technological version of adaptive learning is at least partly an instantiation of Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction. Like the Keller Plan, a weakness of today’s adaptive learning software is the heavy emphasis on content and curriculum. Through ongoing evaluation of learner knowledge levels, the software presents next step or adjacent knowledge that the learner should learn.
Content is the least stable and least valuable part of education. Reports continue to emphasize the automated future of work (pfdf). The skills needed by 2020 are process attributes and not product skills. Process attributes involve being able to work with others, think creatively, self-regulate, set goals, and solve complex challenges. Product skills, in contrast, involve the ability to do a technical skill or perform routine tasks (anything routine is at risk for automation).
This is where adaptive learning fails today: the future of work is about process attributes whereas the focus of adaptive learning is on product skills and low-level memorizable knowledge. I’ll take it a step further: today’s adaptive software robs learners of the development of the key attributes needed for continual learning – metacognitive, goal setting, and self-regulation – because it makes those decisions on behalf of the learner.
Here I’ll turn to a concept that my colleague Dragan Gasevic often emphasizes (we are current writing a paper on this, right Dragan?!): What we need to do today is create adaptive learners rather than adaptive learning. Our software should develop those attributes of learners that are required to function with ambiguity and complexity. The future of work and life requires creativity and innovation, coupled with integrative thinking and an ability to function in a state of continual flux.
Basically, we have to shift education from focusing mainly on the acquisition of knowledge (the central underpinning of most adaptive learning software today) to the development of learner states of being (affect, emotion, self-regulation, goal setting, and so on). Adaptive learners are central to the future of work and society, whereas adaptive learning is more an attempt to make more efficient a system of learning that is no longer needed.

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