Soylent vs Self Regulated Learners

In April last year I had the pleasure of attending the Practice Based Education Summit held in Sydney. One of the keynotes was Professor Allison Littlejohn from the Open University, UK and in her presentation she introduced me to the term “self regulated learners”. It was one of those moments when you discover the right label for something you’ve been wrestling with or have known inately but unable to communicate it clearly. It’s a term used for the set of skills that allows a student to manage their own learning – from time management, content understanding through to how they complete their assessments. Allison presented a body of work that showed that students who developed these skills were more successful and capable in terms of their studies but also their personal goals. Self regulated students were often more aware, more focussed and more competent while at the same time requiring less support, direction and intervention. They were more likely to succeed and less likely to drop out or fail outright. So I started to ask – why is this not the aim of higher education? And, if it was – how? How do you take someone who isn’t a self regulated learner and teach them to become one?

And I’ve mulled over those questions ever since.

As I dwelled over my SXSWedu experiences. 1 2 3 4 5

As I delved into indie ed-tech and the personal API. 6 7

As I spent more time looking at online learning and the pedagogues we use (and should be using). 8

As I examine the roll of the LMS and try and establish if it is truly friend or foe.

As I recently have started to explore the local ed-tech startup scene.

How? How is any of this truly helping us to develop, nurture, support, train, upskill our students, and more broadly all learners, into self directed learners?

And my initial answer is that it doesn’t.

Even at the monied up, residential, full time, elite institutions they don’t develop self regulated learners – they cherry pick them. They accept only the ones that already demonstrate those skills.

Our K-12 system doesn’t produce them – and I’m not sure that it should – but where and how do those skills get learnt, practiced and developed?

The technology certainly doesn’t help. In most cases online technology promotes a model of “Learning on Rails“, a passive and pre-defined model for learning. The technologies we currently use to teach and learn, like the LMS, do little to develop and encourage self-regulated learning. Instead technology is seen as a way to reduce learning to a procedure, a process, something that can be easily encoded and followed step by step (without the need (or cost) of one of those pesky teachers).

The kinds of technologies being adopted in education do little to develop self-regulation, and instead promote a surrveilance state via learning analytics and a punitive approach to “learning”. Turnitin is not a tool for students to learn and improve their writing, it’s a tool to identify misdemeanours and dish out punishment. Learning analytics is a surrveilance system thinly disguised as a tool to identify, categories and “help” students via an algortithm. If we were serious about self-regulation the way we could just ask the student, right?

The next big trend is “personalised learning” which in reality is the absolute antithesis of self-regulated learning. Rather than promote the skills and autonomy of an individal learner it seeks to remove control from the learner and place it into the algorithm (one that you will need to rent in perpetuity). Rather than make the system of education more accessible, understandable and logical as a sector we’re throwing millions of dollars at making it more opaque, unclear and controlled by corporate third parties.

What we are witnessing isn’t the rise of self-regulated learning, instead we’re on a clear trajectory in the opposite direction – to one of control. Centralised control in the hands of a few technologies, corporations and publishers – all who aim to extract every dollar possible to improve their bottom line, not the outcomes of the students. We are witnessing a time where learning is being reduced from a cognitive and developmental process into a consumptive act. One that you will have to pay for. Forever.

The only option now is to build an alternative.

The time has passed for protest and blog posts. If we want to see change, if we want to reclaim education, we are going to have to build the alternative. Something tangible and operational. Something that promotes agency, that develops self regulatpion, that promtoes autnomy and diversity and treat them as features of the system.

Education has reached a “soylent” moment. What is underway is a [rocess that seeks to undermine the fun, colour and enjoyment of learning and turn it into a grey goop. What is increasingly on offer is something that may tick all the”nutritional” boxes but it is so far removed from food and it’s vibrant culture and social function that we end up losing more than could be gained from it “efficiency”.

When it comes down to it – learning is people. Just like soylent green.

Soylent Green is People


In upcoming posts I aim to describe some of these alternatives. They’ll still be in word form – but I’m hoping that by airing them in the open someone might be willing to collaborate, fund or help out via discussion. Welcome to 2017 – the year the revolution gets started.

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