A LEADING University of Huddersfield academic is calling for a revolution in education, so that learning is tailored to the needs of the individual and society in order to help tackle our biggest global threats.
Rupert Ward is Professor of Learning Innovation and Associate Dean (International) in the School of Computing and Engineering, and his new book Personalised Learning for the Learning Person considers how the transformation to personalised learning could happen.
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Professor Ward’s own learning journey has so far involved studying eight postgraduate qualifications including quantum physics, technology management, education and international development. His 20 years of teaching experience, in the UK and internationally, has been built on the effective use of technology within education. In 2009, he became the University’s youngster-ever Head of Department, and in 2015 he undertook an 18-month secondment at Buckingham Palace, where he was Project Lead for iDEA – Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award – a free online programme that develops digital, enterprise and employability skills.
Learning via manageable, smaller steps
Launched in January 2017, iDEA has been adopted in over 100 countries around the world, and has been in particular demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, with an additional 1.25m ‘badges’ – iDEA’s informal digital learning awards – completed since March 2020.
He sees the iDEA model, of incremental steps along the path of learning, as more suited to the world today.
“The education system has changed very little in the last 200 years,” says Professor Ward. “It’s the factory model – people emerge from the system with a quality assurance stamp; have you passed or not passed?
“Then, what has not passed is discarded. If people want to be ‘learning fit’, they have to feel like they can make progress. You do that by reducing barriers and breaking education down into manageable portions so you can incrementally develop. Making that progress, you motivate yourself to do more.”
Digital – the perfect place for personalised learning
Professor Ward sees the online space as ideal for personalised learning that suits the individual, from early school age through to lifelong adult education.
“One of the challenges with online education is how do you do it effectively for young children? How much needs to be face-to-face, with behavioural control versus online learning?
“I think the sweet spot [for online learning] is in the early teens. For iDEA, I found that early secondary is where you can have the most impact. But there is nothing to stop you doing it earlier. The iDEA model is in the informal space. The point of the book is to take this, or similar, to slowly wean ourselves off a poor educational model.
“If we make an analogy with fitness, our current educational systems put 100kg on the bench press and ask you to lift it. It does not help you understand how to build up to 100kg or ask you to reflect on whether lifting 100kg is the right thing for you to aim for.
“Joe Wicks, for example, explains not just why you do certain exercises, but he also gives you the tools to understand and apply this learning to your own life. He shares expertise on diet and exercise so you can understand how things connect.
“We have removed the barriers to physical fitness – more people are exercising than ever before – but that has not happened around learning and educational fitness.”
A new approach to education will, in Professor Ward’s opinion, help current and forthcoming generations tackle more widespread threats, such as climate change and public health. This can happen, he hopes, by education producing people who have better physical and mental health and have more control over their lives.
Time to take learning out of the classroom
“Unless we understand ourselves better, and how we process and respond to threat, then we’ll be in more conflicts. We also won’t address the things that threaten us the most. We don’t look out for slow-moving threats like climate change and health issues. We tend to be reactive not proactive, fearful rather than fulfilled.
“Education spends too much time on individual learning, so let’s put that outside of the classroom, and have more time for social learning because that’s what we need now. We need time to discuss things face-to-face and understand each other better.”
Professor Ward wants learning to move away from the idea of being awarded a single grade, to something that can prepare students for a job market featuring an increasing number of bespoke, specialised roles.
“What we have at the moment is standard learning – what we need is standardised learning,” he adds. “Learning that is still tradable as an educational currency, but where we all learn differently, because we all do learn differently.”
The success of this way of learning under the extraordinary circumstances of Covid-19 via iDEA is, for Professor Ward, a sign of people thriving away from traditional learning, embracing personalised learning.
“People want to learn – but evolution means we tend to be lazy. We don’t want to use our brains if we can avoid it, but making learning engaging and motivating helps a lot. The benefits of taking this approach should be clear for all of us to see. It’s time for a learning revolution!”