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It’s back to school for Facebook, and it’s personal

Has Facebook found a potential new business venture? Flickr/Franklin Heijnen, CC BY-SA

It’s back to school for Facebook, and it’s personal

Has Facebook found a potential new business venture? Flickr/Franklin Heijnen, CC BY-SA

The Facebook legend has it that Mark Zuckerberg got his big social network idea from the school Year Books of the same name: “The Facebook”. But now he is going full-circle and returning to school with software to run the whole show.

The Personalised Learning Platform (PLP) is the social network giant’s latest product. It’s a software system for running a school’s program-per-student, to customise the learning experience for each individual student.

Mark and his wife Priscilla have had a personal interest in improving the US public education system for some time now. In May 2014, they donated US$120-million to surprisingly needy Bay Area schools right in the shadow of the technology giants in Silicon Valley.

Even before Mark married Priscilla he had donated US$100-million to Newark public schools in 2010, so this is no new better man direction for him. The low-key Facebook announcement of PLP labours several points:

  • Facebook is doing it in partnership with a public school provider, (Summit Public Schools)
  • it will make the software free for other public schools, over time
  • it is committed to not selling student data nor using it to advertise to them.

Mike Sego, who is leading the project, says:

[…] a business plan for PLP is a long time away […] it’s not our priority right now.

But that’s what Zuckerberg used to say about your Facebook data before its initial public offering (IPO) in 2012. Now, Facebook is the most significant rival to Google for the global rivers-of-gold that flow from analytically targeted, person-specific advertising.

When Facebook entered its relationship with Summit Schools in late 2014, it put eight programmers to work on PLP, where Summit previously had just one.

Personalised Learning explained

So, what is Personalised Learning and did Facebook and/or Summit Schools invent the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) or Platform?

No, Personalised Learning and PLEs have been with us for some time. Personalised Learning involves adapting the curriculum, teaching approaches and learning materials to suit the individual student. This personalisation of the learning experience includes the student selecting and generating some of their own content. The teacher plays the role of mentor more than before.

It’s been praised by some for allowing students to:

[…] learn whatever, wherever and whenever they desire, usually intermingled with other non-learning activities.

Some early conscripts to Personalised Learning believed the tools were already available, and that it merely needed a change of mindset by both students and teachers.

Whereas others thought that traditional Learning Management Systems (LMS) (such as Blackboard or Moodle, used by many universities and schools) needed to be replaced or refashioned towards personalisation and intelligent adaptiveness.

For time-poor teachers and academics an LMS can be inconvenient to learn and use. To students, an LMS is more a passive portal to content than a site for active learning. They are often seen as a system that best supports the administrative functions of a school. Apart from Moodle, most LMSs are paid-for systems.

Keep it simple … and familiar

Social network platforms have a high degree of user-friendliness. The ease in creating simple content and the speed that it can be uploaded and shared, has spawned a generation of learners that expect nothing less in usability.

With that in mind, our research late last year uncovered and demonstrated the close alignment between the data structures behind the Facebook platform, and those behind advanced LMSs.

The Events functionality in Facebook manages the What? When? Where? Who’s invited? Who’s coming, and Who’s not? of an event. The Events sub-system in Facebook is a generalisation of events that happen in schools and universities (and beyond) such as classes, lectures, labs, creative studios and performance sessions.

The Groups sub-system in Facebook is a generalisation of the sorts of groupings of people found in schools and universities such as classes, reading groups, tutorial groups, project teams, all-middle-school teachers and more.

Facebook Pages are created through a set of built-in stylesheets. Those easily created Posts – the text, links, photos and videos – on your personal Facebook newsfeed, are also available for each Event, Group or Page.

In the early days Facebook started out with just Posts to lists of Friends, but after years of incremental additions and design generalisations, the Facebook platform matured and stabilised just prior to its IPO.

Another business plan for Facebook?

Our research into those data structures found that the Facebook platform was primed for entry into the lucrative Personalised Learning space.

At his September Townhall Q&A session, Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook had 20 people working on PLP. This growing commitment demonstrates significant product plans for the Personalised Learning Platform to the company.

This should be a wake up call to LMS vendors and their customers, that highly usable, low cost Personal Learning Environments will soon be in high demand.

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