07 April 2013

Adaptive learning systems: nothing to be afraid of.

I was meandering through various blogs last week, following various links to material that I found idly interesting.  On Stephen Downes's website, I saw his link to a blog post by David Wiley (a name getting frequent mention in the OU's H817 MOOC*).  The post discusses the dangers of adaptive learning systems -- systems that track your learning and teach your stuff.
(* Actually, I'm starting to get a little stir-crazy reading a lot of data-free opinion pieces from the same four names: Siemens, Cormier, Downes and Weller.)

Wiley's criticism is that you don't own any of the material you access, and he accuses the adaptive learning companies of exploiting our willingness to pay for services while expecting content for free.
Adaptive learning systems exploit this willingness by deeply intermingling content and services so that you cannot access one with using the other.
But how is this any different from any other "teaching" experience?  Wiley seeks to equate adaptive learning systems with textbooks, but is he right to do so?

There are several problems here:
  1. The difference between a teaching text and a reference book.
  2. Course as "teaching" vs course as "material".
  3. The need to ensure that your material is new to the student.

The difference between a teaching text and a reference book

Perhaps I'm lucky in that the subjects I have studied make a big distinction between these two categories.

In languages, you get course books, learners books, textbooks, workbooks etc... a whole bewildering array of paper that leads you through your learning, but when you've finished, you've got practically no need for any of it, and it sits gathering dust on your shelf as you can't bring yourself to get rid of stuff that cost so much to collect, but in the end, all you ever use is a dictionary (probably online) and a single reference grammar book.  That reference grammar book was no use to you when you started out, of course, as the examples contained far too many unfamiliar words, and the ordering of the book made it impossible to really understand anything new.

The same in computers, where a learner's book would hold your hand through the various concepts required to learn a new technology, but looking back on it later, the learner's book was never any good for looking up basic concepts (which were drawn out over entire chapters) and didn't contain enough information on the advanced concepts that would be of some use to you by this stage.  So that book goes to the second-hand shop and you buy a desk-reference or bookmark a webpage.

And yet publishers continue to attempt to sell books to suit both markets, invariably falling between two stools in the process.

A learner doesn't need access to a teaching text after the class is over, and is free to go out and buy a reference book instead.

Course as "teaching" vs course as "material".

As a teacher, I give out lots of material in class, but during the course of the lesson, the material is quickly "consumed" -- worksheets are filled in, and by the end of the day, the student has not accrued any additional work-at-home material over and above any specific homework I may set.  Do Wiley and Downes object to this?  Am I cheating my students if my material is not infinitely reusable?

Because an adaptive learning system is not an attempt to replace the textbook -- it's an attempt to replace the teacher.  A computer, in theory, is capable of producing a more individualised learning path for each student than a teacher, thanks to the computer's essentially limitless perfect memory.  I cannot remember every single difficulty each of my students has, but a computer can.

The need to ensure that your material is new to the student.

Even where there is a developed culture of sharing between teachers, ever teacher holds some things back for themselves.  Why?  It's the "old standby" -- that exercise or activity that can be adapted to various levels to provide an emergency lesson when the projector breaks or the new books haven't arrived.  If you don't share that lesson, then you're safe to use it with any and every class, but if you share it with your colleagues, there's a very high chance that sooner or later you'll have a class say "we did that with Mr So-and-so", and your stumped.

Most sharing at the local level is facilitated by having a shared syllabus -- if the lesson is for 2nd years, you're safe to do it with any 2nd year class, and unsafe to do it with any 3rd year class.  But one way or another, there has to be some way to ensure that students get tasks they've never seen before, because while a good story is no worse for being told a second time, a good lesson is destroyed by being taught a second time.

In the classroom, you can always rely on "we already did that" to let you know, and then you improvise something else, but could you do that in an adaptive learning system?  I don't really think you can.  You can't just accept any old feedback from the student (natural language processing systems aren't that sophisticated yet) and a big red button marked "already done it" would be very off-putting to the student and would make the software look really unprofessional.

No, the software has to know what you've done and what you haven't, and that means keeping control of when and how the learner accesses the material.


In essence, though, I think that Downes and Wiley are objecting on ideological grounds rather than practical, pedagogical ones.  They have aligned themselves with a rather dubious view of learner-centred education where the learner makes all the choices, apparently empowering and enabling them.  Adaptive learning systems take the diametrically opposite view: that by taking the decisions away from the learner and instead presenting whatever the learner most needs or is best ready for at any given moment, the learner attains a much more complete and well learned education.

And anyway, all the evidence is on the side of the adaptive systems guys, because connectivism and the like breaks away from the proven techniques of staggered repetition, planned progression and learning-by-testing which are the very foundations of adaptive learning, and replaces them with an almost entirely unstructured meander through materials effectively chosen by a known non-expert (the learner) with no real "testing" of concepts.

And yet this type of vague handwavery is presented in the absence of discussion about the many known effective techniques in a course that is supposed to be part of a masters-level module.  I am appalled.

1 comment:

Nìall Beag said...

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