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Personal or communal?

April 27, 2008

close-up of barnacles on St Ives harbour wall

Personalising learning – allowing the learner to learn whatever, however and whenever they want to learn – has got to be a good thing, right? Well, maybe not. In his 2002 article MyUniversity.com? Cass Sunstein argues that too much personalisation could have consequences that are bad not only for learning, but also for a diverse, democratic society.

Sunstein’s argument is twofold. First, if students are set free to filter out the content they find unfamiliar or unsettling, focusing only on what they think in advance they want to learn, they will actually miss out on the richest learning opportunities. Those

unanticipated encounters involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating, are central to education, democracy, and even to freedom itself.

Second, if every learner is free to construct their own personalised learning experience, a vital social dimension to the learning is lost. Knowledge risks becoming individualised and fragmented, with no common set of reference points for learners and educators to coalesce around. Sunstein believes that

Citizens, including members of educational institutions, should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences … people will find it increasingly hard to understand one another. (Sunstein, 2002)

I think Sunstein is about 75% right. It’s true that without a shared set of reference points, without those unexpected encounters, learning can barely happen at all. And he’s right to suggest that the current preoccupation with personalisation – the desire for everything to revolve around ‘me’ – is related to a more generalised consumer-individualism: the idea that we have the right to purchase whatever we want, from anywhere in the world, whatever the cost, in order to construct a unique persona for ourselves.

And yet, and yet…

There’s a more positive way of looking at personalisation in learning which Sunstein perhaps overlooks. Not as filtering out the unfamiliar, not as the fragmenting of collective experience, but simply as an increase in the individual learner’s control over the learning experience. Any cognitive or constructivist approach to education requires the learner to be an active partner in the process, and that in turn implies scope for decision-making and the expression of personal preference by the learner. If educators hope to produce independent learners, they must first give learners some independence.

And there’s a crucial aspect of online learning that Sunstein has not taken into account: community. Properly understood, eLearning is a networked activity, with dialogue between a community of learners (and teachers) at its heart: such a dialogue presupposes, and could not take place without, a common core of learning content and a shared set of learning experiences.

My current OU course exemplifies this. H806 consists of a core of texts, themes, modules and assignments which all students must engage with in order to complete the course; but at the same time gives students a great deal of choice about which learning objects to focus on, and enormous latitude in how they relate the new ideas to their personal experience, in what to read, and in how to express and record their learning. H806 also, and crucially, consists of a community of learners who continuously share their experience, their knowledge and their insights in various online communities – communities where students’ diverse professional and cultural backgrounds are a regular source of different views, new knowledge, challenged assumptions, and unanticipated encounters.

At its powerful best, eLearning can be both personal and communal.

Sunstein C, 2002. MyUniversity.com? Personalized Education and Personalized News. EDUCAUSE Review Volume 37, Number 5, September/October 2002. Available online @ http://connect.educause.edu/Library/EDUCAUSE+Review/MyUniversitycomPersonaliz/40359?time=1209199791

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From → H806

5 Comments
  1. Jennifer permalink

    I completely agree with and praise your style of the H806 course. It’s wise to set a perimeter if students are to learn a particular topic or concept, but it’s important to give them the freedom to explore and learn in their own way. There’s generally a human mindset that causes people to be willing to do something up until the point that someone tells them they have to. I think that often comes into play in learning settings and tends to stifle any amount of agreeance that the students may have had.

  2. Yoke Sau Cheng permalink

    Hi John,

    I agree that there’s an overemphasis on the individual that stems from consumerism. What with all the doomsday talk on climate change, etc. and now the food (cereal) crisis, perhaps in a few years, we’ll look back and realise that resources are to be shared. And education which includes interaction with others and “a common core of learning content and a shared set of learning experiences” is in a similar vein. To quote Sunstein: “People are citizens, not merely consumers, and education, properly conceived and operated, is a breeding ground for citizenship”.

    Cheers,
    Yoke Sau

  3. Tim K permalink

    “There’s a more positive way of looking at personalisation in learning which Sunstein perhaps overlooks. Not as filtering out the unfamiliar, not as the fragmenting of collective experience, but simply as an increase in the individual learner’s control over the learning experience.” I couldn’t agree more. As in your description of the course that you are currently taking, you are given choice in how you achieve the learning objectives of the class. We all are acutely aware of the fact the people learn in different ways and so having a solid foundation in thinking strategies and critical thinking skills before constructing a personalized learning experience is crucial however the end results will most likely promote greater gains. I keep thinking generative and supplantive learning here. If a learner has the drive to customize his learning experience and is not afraid to seek alternative views his learning stands to be so much greater. I would also think that someone having this drive would seek rather than avoid others sharing their interest in a given topic.

  4. johnmill permalink

    thanks for this Tim.

    I’d never come across the term ‘supplantive learning’ before, and find that in the UK it stands opposed to simple ‘additive learning’ and refers to the intriguing idea of ‘learning as loss’ – see http://www.doceo.co.uk/original/learnloss_1.htm. While in the US it refers more to teacher-led, transmissive learning as opposed to discovery-based (generative) learning which focuses on helping the learner to make new cognitive connections.

  5. johnmill permalink

    >perhaps in a few years, we’ll look back and realise that resources are to be shared..

    I sincerely hope so Yoke Sau. The Leadbeater book is in a way all about this – the idea that sharing can be the most productive way of organising things. J

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