Can online learning be personalized without being anti-social?

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While watching Peter Norvig, Sebastian Thrun, and Sal Khan field questions on their experiences and goals with online education, one set of comments by Peter Norvig absolutely resonated for me (at time 18:52):

I think for us, the key that we’re trying to figure out is how to combine a personal experience with a group experience. We really want to enable mastery on the part of the individual, to say you should keep interacting with the material until you’ve really gotten it, that’s going to be at your own pace. But at the same time we find that it’s really motivating to have a group that’s working together. That’s the advantage of having a class that’s run synchronously is that everybody is there, you can go into the discussion forums, you can get help from your peers. So we want to keep some group together so that they can help each other while allowing people to work at their own pace, and getting that right is the trickiest part.

Yes. My biggest fear with the momentum behind personalized and adaptive approaches to instruction is that learners are isolated from one another, no longer connected enough to provide the moral, social, and academic support to one another. If we give up collaboration on the road to personalization, have we actually moved the ball forward? Two steps forward and one step back. Or worse, perhaps one step forward and two steps back. The good news here, as Peter suggests, is that the two are not mutually exclusive. We can design scalable learning experiences that incorporate both personalization and collaboration. We just need to be thoughtful (clever?) and approach it as a design challenge. After being involved in designing three collaborative+personalized learning activities over the past few years at Grockit, I’m finally starting to understand it. Peter alludes to it above: It’s all about the timing.

Let’s start by assuming that you’ve created a learning environment (online or offline) that can adequately support both synchronous and asynchronous forms of interaction among learners. We can then ask: For a particular activity, what would be the benefits and drawback in structuring it around synchronous vs. asynchronous interactions? What mode of interaction synchronicity makes the most sense? Recognizing practical logistical constraints answered this question 80% of the time. We know that different people read at different speeds, for instance, and so a synchronous activity would leave some people waiting for others to finish. The larger the potential discrepancy in time required by different students, the more logical it is to shift to an asynchronous design. But while individuals may differ in the speed that they read, a group discussion still progresses at the shared pace of conversation. This is why the notion of a “flipped classroom” seems logistically reasonable: It’s essentially a model offering instruction at the pace of comprehension — which varies from student to student — and application at the pace of discussion — in-class group problem-solving and Q&A activities.

At a high level, bridging the personalization-collaboration divide is also a matter of timing. Personalization generally implies a self-paced progression through a sequence, decoupling the student’s own timeline from that of other their peers. Collaboration generally implies tightly-coupled timelines, where synchronized progression enables rich real-time interactions. To be able to draw on both of these simultaneously requires some creative thinking. We’ve explored three solutions so far: (1) structuring asynchronous interactions in a way that simulates or approximates the just-in-time nature of synchronous feedback (a la Grockit Answers), (2) supporting self-paced personalized learning to take place in a common space, allowing for easy access to others who have previously mastered a topic to jump in to help when needed (a la Grockit’s GRE “study hall”), and (3) simply by providing learner control over when they study alone and when they learn with others. These three are just a start. In what other ways can creative activity design bring together the best of collaboration and personalization in learning?