Thursday 14 December 2017

Personal Learning, Technology and the end of the Curriculum

I'm learning Russian at the moment. I have an excellent tutor, and I think Я делаю хороший прогресс! Since I've been very interested in the mediating role of objects in learning - particularly in how objects illuminate the understanding of both the teacher and the learner - I've been particularly fascinated by the way that Google Translate can be used to loosen-up the learning conversation so that it follows a more natural line of human inquiry.

All of a sudden, I find myself back in the world of the Personal Learning Environment - but with a twist. It is not that we learn through personal tools. But rather computer tools (like mobile phones) are objects which can be used to summon-up other objects (like an automatic translation or Wikipedia). In a face-to-face learning conversation about language, technology becomes an interlocutor whose flexibility and sheer variety of behaviour prods both teacher and learner into revealing more about themselves.

So, for example, a conversation may start with talking about the different cases of Russian grammar (genitive, dative, accusative, etc). With the mobile phone in the centre, the question becomes "does Google Translate deal with cases correctly?". This turns the process of learning a language (which is often presented as a dull exercise in remembering stuff) into a process of inquiry about the behaviour of the tool. Sometimes the tool gets it wrong. I will ask my tutor why it's wrong. I learn something more about the tutor. I am always studying the tutor, not the content.

All objects illuminate the understanding of people engaging with them. It is through the use of objects that we produce multiple rich descriptions of our understanding. What is learnt are the underlying patterns which generate the variety of descriptions: so one moment we talk about google translate's attempt to translate cases properly; the next we talk about the news in Russian or the weather in Vladivostok.

Education has yet to catch up with the generative power of the technological objects at its disposal. When it does so, it will see the "curriculum" to be a redundant concept. The curriculum is a very crude object which expresses the organisation of knowledge in some form. Good teachers seek to redescribe the curriculum "object" in such a way that their own understanding (or lack of it) is revealed more to their students. But more usually, teachers hide their understanding (or lack of it) behind the curriculum, its assessments, and their Powerpoints.

Objects as technologies should be the organising focus of education, not curriculum. We should create ways in which objects can be manipulated so as to create a natural flow of inquiry between teachers and learners and between learners and each other. The ridiculous thing is that I don't think this is hard to do. But to achieve it we have to deal with that other pernicious object in education: the assessment. Assessments are where everybody hides their lack of understanding! In an authentic world of object-human relations, there may in fact be no need for assessment. But that's an unthinkable thought in the education system of today.


Unknown said...

Great points, Mark.
What you are describing was always pretty much my understanding of a "personal learning environment". Depending on my intentions/interests I can draw in all kinds of "objects" (physical, digital,...) that can either be (or become) a direct object of inquiry... or some sort of mediating "instrument" either for conversation with others, or with myself.

Mark Johnson said...

Thanks Seb!
I think the insight into the PLE that's struck me is that my focus previously was about "personal organisation" and not communication. The issue was bringing tools "to-hand". Perhaps I would now say that bringing tools to-hand is to bring "objects into conversation". When you do that, you change the conversation, and you change how we might think about the coordination of the conversation.

I think I started thinking (over 10 years ago!) that "personal" and "learning" was the most important thing about the PLE. Now, I would say it's "environment" - at least as far as a continually shifting environment of objects is concerned. Interestingly, in Beer's VSM, the environment is the least well-specified bit...