Source of image (see Footnote)
This week I have lost my wonderful personal trainer who has been coming to me twice a week for the past three years or so. She was wonderful because in all that time no two sessions were ever exactly the same, she talked throughout the sessions making them seem like social events rather than gruelling exercise, she knew exactly what I needed to keep me fit and also what would motivate me. She personalized my fitness training. I will miss her, even though I will still have my twice weekly circuit training sessions in our village hall. I might have to step that up to three times a week. The circuit training sessions are for a group; as such they are not individualised/personalized for me.
So it has been interesting to listen to Stephen Downes and George Siemens talking about personal learning assistants this week in the Personal Learning MOOC. Stephen illustrated the idea of a digital personal learning assistant very well by showing us how he uses an online Food tracker, into which he records the details of all his food intake and his online Fitness tracker into which he records his walking and cycling sessions. The point was that these are his personal learning assistants. He can set targets for how many daily calories he will eat or how much weekly exercise he does, and by inputting his data, he will receive feedback on how well he is meeting his targets. I have to say that my immediate reaction was that I wouldn’t want to spend the time on inputting the data – and as for targets – being interested in emergent learning, targets isn’t a word I easily relate to, although I can easily relate to the idea of challenge.
Not so long ago I bought myself a Fitbit to count my daily steps – a target driven device. My enthusiasm for it was very short-lived and I didn’t even have to enter data for that – just wear it and it recorded my steps automatically. The wonderful thing about my personal trainer was that I rarely had to provide her with any data, but I received the exact sessions and feedback I needed, there were no targets, and it felt like a social event. This aligns with Stephen’s comment that automation should take out the drudgery.
Stephen and George discussed what automation of personal learning should and shouldn’t do (see the video). Automation should not only remove the drudgery of tasks (for me that would include inputting data!) but also enable choice, honour autonomy, respect human agency, provide appropriate support and most importantly provide feedback. Basically we are talking about what good teachers have always done. This is what my personal trainer did for me. She planned my training sessions, but I was always able to say to her ‘No, I don’t want to, or I am not able to do that today’ and then she would modify the activity. She listened and her plans were highly adaptable. She always left me with next steps, but it was up to me whether I took those steps and she never judged me if I didn’t.
But my personal trainer was not an automaton. I learned as much about her as she did about me and whilst I learned a lot from her, I know that she also learned from me. Could this be the case for a digital personal trainer? Yes I expect so, but my gut feeling tells me that now that I have ‘lost’ her, (she has moved on in her life and I am pleased for her) I don’t think she could be replaced by a machine.
Meanwhile research seems to be turning towards investigating what aspects of a teacher’s role could be automated. See for example:
Bayne, S. (2015). Teacherbot: interventions in automated teaching. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 455–467. doi:10.1080/13562517.2015.1020783 – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13562517.2015.1020783
Lim, S. L., & Goh, O. S. (2016). Intelligent Conversational Bot for Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004 – http://arxiv.org/pdf/1601.07065v1.pdf
And at the end of his talk with Stephen, George said that he thought that those working on developing machine learning will be the ones to become wealthy in the future, which for some reason at this point in time feels a bit depressing, but hopefully won’t be so.
A few years ago, whilst working as a consultant for the University of Birmingham, I saw these robots (the ones in the first image in this post) being used to support children on the autism spectrum in a forward thinking Birmingham school. Research into this programme showed that these children were able to relate to these robots and that the robots helped them develop their communication skills.
Further resources related to Week 6 in the Personal Learning MOOC
Levy, D. M. (2007). No Time to Think. Ethics & Information Technology, 9(4), 1–24. doi:10.1007/s10676 – http://faculty.washington.edu/dmlevy/Levy_No_Time_to_Think.pdf
Halevy, A., Norvig, P., & Pereira, F. (2009). The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 24(2), 8–12. doi:10.1109/MIS.2009.36 – http://static.googleusercontent.com/media/research.google.com/en//pubs/archive/35179.pdf