Tech and Individualized Learning?

The comments to my 2/11 blog post on "learning styles and tuition dollars" were really great. Commentators really took me to task on the theory of learning styles. Cedar, an Asst.

February 22, 2010

The comments to my 2/11 blog post on "learning styles and tuition dollars" were really great. Commentators really took me to task on the theory of learning styles. Cedar, an Asst. Prof of Psychology at liberal arts school provided a number of great links and arguments to support his argument that "[learning styles are] a classic myth that gives many people justified pause in adopting educational technology just for the sake of a shiny new toy which doesn't actually foster learning".

In reading the comments I kept wondering if I had mis-used the term "learning styles", therefore obscuring my main point that education should (where possible) be personalized and individualized. Even if we grant the idea that there is no "one" learning style (and that we all learn in different and multiple ways), it is still true that not everybody learns in the same way.

The main job of a learning technologist, as I see it, is to partner with faculty and other learning professionals (such as librarians and media specialists), to make big classes feel like small classes. Part of the advantage of small classes is that the professor can be more flexible in adjusting the content and assignments to the individual learners. Small classes are not always feasible, and that is where technology can offer a bridge to this flexibility.

Some specific examples:

1) Consuming: The other day I got a note from a professor wondering if an audio (iPod) version of her lectures could be available for her students. She thought one of her students would absorb the material better if he was "moving" while listening. I love this request, as it shows that the professor is really thinking about how this student learns. We were able to provide an mp3 version of the lecture, using Techsmith's Camtasia Relay product, and the student and the professor were very happy.

Lecture capture is great example of how a technology can facilitate individualized learning. Some students will learn much better if they listen a number of times to a lecture or presentation. Some students will need to jump around, re-watching specific concepts. What is important is that the students absorb the materials, not that they do so in a uniform fashion.

2) Producing: Student media projects are a great example of offering our student's multiple ways to create learning. Some students will excel at writing a 20 page end-of-term paper. For other students this is torture. Offering the option to create a final media project, or a final term paper, allows the student to create (and learn) using a method best suited to her passions and strengths. Yes, everyone needs to learn how to write. But writing can be done in the context of other work (for example, in writing scripts or voice-overs). Allowing a student the flexibility to create in a way that gets her excited may make the learning both more relevant and permanent.

3) Practice: Formative assessment is a wonderful way for students to work with and master complicated materials. The quizzing engine in every CMS allows for frequent, low-stakes, computer generated quizzing around discrete chunks of curriculum. Some students will greatly benefit for frequent formative assessments. Some will not. But here the technology offers the opportunity for the learner to work the material in the manner that best re-enforces the materials for his or her individual brain.

My main hope for my kids is that they will find a college or university that supports them in finding their passions and in mastering the information, material and concepts necessary to gain expertise. Achieving mastery is incredibly difficult. People who find their passions don't have an easier path towards expertise. Rather, they will be motivated and equipped to spend the 10,000 or so hours necessary to reach their goals.

I see learning technology as a significant differentiator in creating personalized learning environments within higher education. What do you think?


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