It is common knowledge now that a homogenous and rote learning education system might suit some children but not all, thereby isolating many and preventing them from achieving their full potential. What we need to offer our children is a ‘fun’ experience while learning. An experience that is immersive, experiential, self-paced, interactive and designed specifically for each child.
Fortunately, the global community has awakened to this crisis in education and has called for quality and inclusive education for all, which is the crux of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. I perceive personalised learning as the foremost means of answering this global call and truly achieving this goal for all children across the world.
Social and institutional implications
The focus here, however, is not on highlighting the merits of personalised learning but to determine if the concept is feasible; if yes, what are the social and institutional implications?
The definite answer is ‘Yes’ and information technology is the key to making it happen. Specifically, I am referring to the internet and the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which offers the possibility of harnessing the collective wisdom of the many for the benefits of the individual.
The internet can be seen as offering two levels of information. The first is the actual content that is made available for learners to access – let’s call this the first order information. The second level of information is partially hidden – it is not readily available to everyone – and relates to the behavioural aspects of the users accessing and using content; this is the data that is harnessed by AI. Let’s call this second order information.
An article in the May 17, 2017, issue of The Economist considers this second order information about users accessing and using information on the internet as ‘new gold’. Ben Rossi, in his article, ‘Data revolution: the gold rush of the 21st century’, estimates that the amount of data accumulated in 2011 and 2013 was more than nine times the data collected till 2011; this data is expected to reach 44 Zettabytes by 2020.
Such information has immense utility when it comes to education. Imagine a scenario where a child in rural India is having trouble with introductory algebra and the teacher’s limited knowledge base makes it hard for the child to find an answer. We can expect the teacher to only have a finite set of approaches to teaching algebra that is available as she or he is constrained by the human brain. Things will be very different, however, if the child is given access to an online system, which I will tentatively call Global Intelligent Education Platform (GIEP). As part of this system, the child is paired with a personalised BOT right after she/he enters school.
A Bot can be described as a computer program (a set of algorithms) that is able to support and provide guidance to a user or users in accomplishing a task or automatic repetitive tasks and may grow its own intelligence after mining and analysing huge amounts of data. A Bot is a product of AI!
This BOT develops a keen understanding of the child’s attributes and learning preferences by evaluating data about the child’s ongoing learning experiences. It also has access to an infinite set of possible interventions – arising from learner-centric data derived from the experiences of millions of other children learning algebra or any other topic worldwide – to help the child overcome learning problems. Personalised learning, the holy grail of education, is a definite reality in this hypothetical scenario. As I perceive it, making this a reality for children today a distinct possibility.
Before that, however, we must overcome some ideological challenges related to the ownership of information that the BOT will access. As we have visualised it, the personalised BOT’s capacity to impart learning and customise solutions will only be as strong as the amount of information that it can access. Therefore, the strength of the GIEP will depend on whether the information generated by learners all across the world is made accessible to every individual learner – a pure social good.
Role of inter-governmental organisations
Who, then, should be the custodians or managers of this new gold? In many ways, the knowledge available can be considered as the global commons as described by the late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom.
Who then can provide and manage this common? Can governments provide this service? The answer is both Yes and No. Yes, because governments do have the mandate to provide the social good; No, because in this case, the commons transcend national boundaries. If I need to find an analogous, I will use the global climate system as the global commons and if not managed properly can lead to climate change.
The unambiguous solution to this dilemma is that the responsibility be taken up by an inter-governmental organisation such as the United Nations or one or more of its specialised agencies such as the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
To answer the two fundamental questions posed in the title of this article, I would say that the global community own the global knowledge commons and that this knowledge be managed by an inter-governmental agency such as the United Nations.
Anantha Duraiappah is the Director of UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development.
First Published: IST