The Open University's 2015 Innovating Pedagogies report has just been published.
It contains a section entitled 'Adaptive teaching' which it defines as:
Referring to the ways in which computer applications can analyse data from learning activities to provide learners with relevant content, to sequence their learning activities, to address gaps in their knowledge, and to accelerate their learning. (2015: 33).
This has clear relevance to flexible learning, and connects strongly with the HEA Flexible Pedagogies: preparing for the future report on Technology-Enhanced Learning written by Neil Gordon (2014).
Adaptive teaching and learning is therefore highly student-centred, personalising the learning experience to individual learners by discerning the needs of each one and guiding them according to the analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. At one level it therefore sounds very close to the flexible learning agenda. So why am I left with a sense of unease?
Upon reflection, I think I have found the cause. Adaptive technologies collect data, analyse them, and then offer opportunities to the learner to take action. This action might be to address lacunae in their knowledge and understanding, or to revise content the technologies perceive they had difficulty in mastering by doing, perhaps, a different exercise and a second self-test exercise. They are able to personalise the learning experience by catering for different learning styles, and helping learners to know when they have achieved a satisfactory level in order to progress further. All of this is potentially good news. Except....
While at one level students are being offered choices - something lying at the very heart of the flexible learning agenda - at another there an almost sinister impression of choices being removed. 'We' (this anonymous, data-gathering piece of sotware) have identified that you need to do this next. Here's how you do it'. The technologies are undoubtedly able to offer choices about what and how, but given the strong sense of progress towards a desired goal, almost certainly enshrined in one or more learning outcomes, the choices are likely to be limited, especially since 'training' and developing the technologies is very time consuming and labour intensive.
One of the real strength of flexible learning is that the choices students are offered contribute to their personal development but in a very different way. Making choices can require a considerable amount of effort. Information has to be gathered and evaluated. The range of options identified. Decisions made about which is the best to pursue. A rational and sometimes emotional commitment made to that choice. And once the choice has been made, then individuals have to find the wherewithal to manage the consequences, be those anticipated and as intended, or unanticipated and potentially unwanted. These are, of course, skills that employers are looking for in recent graduates as well as in their established employees. They are also life skills that need to be acquired and exercised almost on a daily basis. Flexible learning is not just about the pragmatics of how, what, when and where we learn. It is just as much about the life skills it fosters.
Adaptive technologies may, eventually be able to function in this way, but that is likely to depend on how they are used and perceived by those who manage them. If they are seen as a way of reducing the 'burden' of teaching by removing one of the time-consuming parts of their role, then we should be worried. Traditionally, discerning where students are struggling, where more support is needed and how this might be provided, is embedded within the relationship that teachers build with their students and which, for many, is why they do their job. If, on the other hand, they can be designed bearing in mind the human dimension - the establishment of relationships in many directions, and the development of life skills for the learners - then they may find a welcome place in tomorrow's higher education.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.