Providing the personal touch

10th March 2006 at 00:00
The e-strategy from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has four main elements, one of which is "personalised content". It is not yet entirely clear what this might mean, and indeed the whole personalised learning agenda has some ambiguity around it. But this is no bad thing.

These are big ideas, and there is a need for a real debate to establish what the full promise is and how we can realise it in the classroom.

If personalisation has anything to offer, it must have something to do with putting the learner first and offering each a meaningful experience. So what might that look like?

Some pointers may come from the world of fan fiction. This is a creative genre that has been around a long time. Inspired by books, film or, more recently, games, fans create their own works. These might be poems, short stories, paintings, even novels. Some are great works: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poems Morte D'Arthur and The Lady of Shalott were inspired by Arthurian legend; in turn, Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse painted his vision of the Lady of Shalott, which now hangs at Tate Britain.

These could all be viewed as examples of fan fiction.

Less famous works are also important, and internet technologies have ensured that these can be created by, and reach, a global audience. There are a number of websites, some started and run by fans, that offer places for fan fiction to be shared and celebrated. The volume and sophistication of some of the work that appears is impressive, and much of it is created by young people. Whole novels, published chapter by chapter, are not uncommon.

Collaboration is rife. This can range from constructive critical comment on a piece of writing to the composition of music to a poem posted by another fan, or the re-working of a pen-and-ink image to include colour. All of this is achieved in a spirit of celebration of a shared love of the original inspiring texts, and of support for fellow contributors. Purely negative responses are rare, and receive a fast-and-furious reaction from community members.

The level of creativity and collaborative learning seen in these sites would be the envy of any e-learning course developer. And one thing we can be sure of is that the resulting content, and the learning resulting from the development of this work, are both highly personalised.

So how might the experience of being a member of such a learning community compare to being signed up to the school learning platform? Will this web space offer the same opportunities for posting drafts, getting feedback from a range of readers and re-drafting? Will online collaboration have a place in the new personalised curriculum?

The hope is that we will not see the kind of products that have dogged further and higher education - some are little more than online filing cabinets, with some rather poor communication tools. These are used reluctantly and with little impact on learning in most cases.

We must not miss a real opportunity to use technology to give learners a voice and an audience, to make the processes of creation, reflection and development key to learning, and to offer the job of creating truly personalised content to the only person who can really do it - the learner herself.

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

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