Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Putting Imagination Back Into Education

Earlier this year, I read that Coca-Cola has launched “Freestyle” vending machines throughout the GTA. Unlike a typical vending drink machine which dispenses a particular brand in a can or bottle, this new machine offers more than 100 Coke-owned soft drinks and allows users to mix a variety of flavours. According to Shane Grant, a vice president at Coca-Cola, these machines are “the new normal for consumers” and a response to the belief that “everything is becoming more personalized.” The move towards customization is “the next big thing” in marketing, notes Frank Piller, a professor at MIT’s Technology Design Lab.

As Susan Krashinksy of The Globe and Mail indicates in her column “Adhocracy,” the expectation of a personalized experience is a logical progression for young consumers raised on Facebook and iTunes. Want a unique-looking sports shoe? Log on to NikeID and you can create one. Ditto if you would like to design your own trench coat: Burberry can help you with that.

At this point, I imagine readers are asking what marketing has to do with education. Our students are capable of exerting their influence in both the real and digital worlds. Increasingly, they expect the same of their educational experiences. There is no doubt that the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning in high school is one of the reasons why a high proportion of students fail to engage fully with the process or disengage entirely, as too often their individual learning needs are ignored or optimized.

Fortunately, the timely intersection of new technologies, research on how we learn, and teacher development offers the hope of personalizing the educational experience. As Christensen, Johnson and Horn explain in their groundbreaking work Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, personalized learning, an approach that truly meets the needs of individual learners, is what will drive the reformation of education in the 21st century.

Coin-operated vending machines were first used in the 19th century. Since then they have become increasingly sophisticated, as evidenced by Coca-Cola’s “Freestyle” machine. Regrettably, the same arc of innovation is not true of education. Personalized education, which offers students vital input to how they learn, offers the hope of addressing this lack of imagination.

Allan Hardy

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