Personalised learning cultures: an interview with Jeff Borden

Jeff Borden

In spite of the increasingly prevalent role of technology in all facets of our lives, the uptake of learning technologies remains limited. OEB 2011 keynote speaker Jeff Borden argues in favour of the personalisation of education through technology and outlines how education data can help this process.


Why the push towards online education?


Technology has obviously become ubiquitous in our society.  Almost every cornerstone business has transformed due to both the promise of and the pragmatic capability of technology.  Every industry that is, except education.


While we trust technology to help us manage our money, our automobiles, our houses, and even our correspondence with everyone from friends to colleagues, there is still a large contingency of educators who do not wish to allow technology to transform how we teach or how students learn.  Typically partnered with the fallacy of tradition (e.g. – “We’ve always done it this way, therefore we should continue…”) technology is sometimes ignored, other times disparaged and almost always under-used by educators.


So, rather than help our students learn how to use tools that will only grow with them over time, we often ask our students to leave these tools at the door, assuming that the old way of doing things must be the best.


In 1980, Eduventures reported that the average American university student lived less than 5 miles from campus.  By 2006, that number jumped to 50 miles.  Today, the number is over 78 miles.  Why?  Because students are demanding online education.  They are telling their local institutions that if they refuse to offer technology- enabled courses that offer flexibility as well as the same outcomes and engaging learning, that they will take their classes somewhere else.


Finally, technology can improve learning dramatically.  There is technology that can actually measure a person’s individual “forget curve” and promote learning concepts at the exact right time for a single brain.  There are serious games that have been shown by studies to increase the speed of learning by over 400% while making student long-term retention 2-3 times longer.  There is immersive technology that allows students to make real-life, practical mistakes in a safe environment, rather than only delivering theory and hoping the mistakes are not made in the “real world” by those same students.  Technology in the right hands can teach students far better than a classroom without.


The push for online learning is not only the right thing to do: It is also the best thing to do.


You claim technology can transform education – how?


Imagine a world where “seat time” is no longer warranted.  Picture an educational landscape that allows one person to take a class in an amount of time that is appropriate to them.  Why do we measure student learning based on clock hours anymore?  Especially when we know that some students learn specific concepts faster than others.  Some students apply concepts better than others.  Some students need remediation.  Some students need acceleration.  Some students have brains that are better equipped to learn at midnight.  Yet we continue to force the 8 a.m. class on some students despite the fact that their brain waves are biologically muted.


That personalisation happens far better and far faster through technology.  The ability to measure an entire student persona happens far easier using technology.  Data based decisions around behaviour, cognition, outcomes, activity, time, etc., are all much easier to get and use with technology.


Those data points lead to true personalisation.  I cannot possibly teach so that every student’s memory is utilised at the right time for the right content.  We all remember and forget in our own patterns.  Yet, technology can create a personalised flash-card set for anyone to help them remember any concept for years.  I cannot possibly push 25 students through different paces and different levels of understanding over a 16 week period with only my lectern and my senses.  So, I am forced to teach to the middle, catching failing students more often, but still not to the degree with which technology can help them automatically.


How will technology transform education?  Through data which leads to true personalisation.


Why is education data so important for both the future and for transformation?


Data is rapidly changing our world.  Entire industries are finding efficiencies through data mining that are saving hundreds of millions of dollars.  Businesses are discovering how to target specific parts of the population for products and services thereby saving time, money, and energy as well as creating a more personalised world for every consumer.  Data shows us both trends, through pattern mining, and it also gives us the ability to monitor the here and now.
Education is no different from almost every other industry.  Data can change how we think about tuition, seat time, classroom management, activity time, outcomes mastery, grade inflation and on and on.  We can look for patterns, discover holes and create new instructional models when we do the right things with data.  Data can create quality and can help with accountability when set up properly and implemented effectively.


Who benefits more from technology in education?  (The student or the instructor?)


Today, I would guess that the balance of power shifts toward the student with regard to technology.  Even when an instructor refuses to incorporate technology – sometimes even “banning” its usage, students still incorporate technology into their learning plan.  I heard a keynote speaker at a conference say that the most used resource around the world by students was Wikipedia.  At the same time, Wikipedia is the technology tool most disparaged by professors, typically being “banned” for use in their classrooms.  So, rather than teach students how to use this tool as a fantastic starting place and instead of teaching them how to evaluate a Wikipedia entry for authenticity or credibility, it seems that many educators are simply ignoring it in hopes that it will go away.  (Hint – it’s not going away.)


But as instructors go to conferences, speak with colleagues, and explore technology on their own, I think they are all starting to find wonderful uses for it in the classroom.  I also should say that I believe a decade from now, there will not be a question of how technology helps education.  Online education and face to face education will just be modalities used at various times in various places.  But until then, we have some catching up to do.


Conventional wisdom suggests that technology in education is just a fad.  Why do you suggest otherwise?


I still hear this at conferences, although admittedly I typically hear it from instructors who are close to retirement.  If I had 5 years left to teach, I don’t know that I would change my methods either.  That kind of change is difficult.  It puts the emphasis on the student instead of the instructor, which can be a pretty major paradigm shift for some.


However, to suggest that the technology that is all around us will not infuse itself into our educational constructs seems extremely short-sighted.  The technology of the pencil and the printing press changed forever the way education was handled and the technologies that we are inventing today are one thousand times more powerful than a pencil.


I’m not talking about a specific tool or technology.  This is not a conversation about DVD vs.  Blue-Ray.  One technology will win out, and another will eventually die.  What I am talking about is the ability for us to surround our teaching with social technologies, with memory aids through technology, with technology that helps us both measure and deliver outcomes more appropriately.


Jeff Borden will be a keynote speaker in the opening plenary session on Thursday, December 1st.  He will also be taking part in Meet the Keynotes on Thursday, December 1st at 11.45 – 13.00. He will then present  Education 3.0 at 14.15 –  15.45 and deliver  teaching workshops at the Pearson stand (B54 Foyer Potsdam).

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