Posted by: crudbasher | January 27, 2012

A Forecast Of Personalized Learning

“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.” -Ray Bradbury

I just reread a fascinating book I originally read 15 years ago; The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. (beware major spoilers via that link) There are several main concepts going through it that have been coming up in my thinking about education the last two years.

The book takes place towards the end of this century I think, in a world where nanotechnology is practical and widespread. When people want an object, they use a device called a Matter Compiler, or MC to create it. This device starts by creating a vacuum inside it. Then it assembles the required object atom by atom. These atoms come from utility tubes called the Feed. These run to everybody’s house and provides the MC with base atoms to build things. You can get pretty much anything you want. Some things you have to pay for, but some things (like food) are free. You can see the first beginning of this idea with current 3D printing.

This future world is very different from the one we know today. First, countries have pretty much ceased to exist as we know them. People are organized into phyles (think tribes), which are created by things they have in common, not where they live. They can be organized by religion, occupation, morals, etc… All of those you will note are information based. You can already start to see the move of people today from location based phyles (nation states) to information based phyles. A drastic example of this is Al Qaeda. This terrorist organization  is organized by ideology which crosses geographic lines.

I have referred to this breaking up of current organizations as Disaggregation. Have you noticed how the last few US elections have been more and more volatile? People complain about special interests dominating the dialog but the dirty little secret is we are all part of at least one special interest. In The Diamond Age, special interests are all that’s left.

This part of the book interested me of course but that’s not why I went back and reread it. One of the main characters in the book is named Nell. She is a little girl when the book starts and comes into possession of a prototype learning device in the form of a book called the “Primer”. It works like this:

The book narrates a story for Nell where she is a princess in a magical kingdom. It animates pictures and graphics so she is watching something much more interactive than just a book. As the story unfolds, the book periodically creates tasks for Nell to overcome. The critical feature of the book is that as it tells the story, Nell can interrupt to ask questions. The book will then branch off at that point and tell her another story to answer the question. There are more tasks and challenges embedded to assess learning. Once she has mastered the new concept, the original story continues, but the book makes changes in the story to adapt to her learning style and interests.

One other really cool feature of the book is it can reach out onto the net and connect up with “ractors”. These are remote actors that can be hired to play in interactive simulations that people use for recreation. These actors then can play parts in Nell’s story, providing a human quality to the performance.

A story is one of the best ways humans learn, so I think the pedagogy here is fantastic. The Primer personalizes the story to the learner, goes at her pace and answers every question in as much detail as required.

I won’t give away the ending but The Diamond Age is a great book and has influenced my thinking on larger scale patterns. Check it out.


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