The you live in, can influence your health,

The following explanation in layman’s terms, quoted from a
popular but respected website (WebMD) will explain the diagram a little:

Precision medicine revolves around
the idea that a condition — like cancer or heart disease — in you isn’t
necessarily the same as in someone else. Instead, the genes you got from your
parents, and the environment you live in, can influence your health, the
symptoms you have, and even how well treatments might work. 

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If scientists can understand the
root of these differences, they think they can develop treatments that are more


It’s becoming clearer that medicine
is not one-size-fits-all. For example, a treatment that helps shrink one
person’s tumor or eases their arthritis symptoms doesn’t always work for
somebody else.

Picture this: You get detailed
tests that can gauge how your arthritis or cancer differs from someone else’s.
Then you get a treatment that’s tailored to you, rather than to anyone else.

Precision medicine, at its core, is
about matching the right drugs to the right people.

But today it’s not yet possible for
every disease. So even though it sounds like a great idea, your doctor might
still give you the standard drug that most other people get. (WebMD, 2016)

The same principles are applicable to (language) education
with the focus now shifting away from group characteristics (e.g. statistics or
the often-recommended needs analyses) toward actual difficulties experienced by
learners as they engage with the learning process. This, in turn, leads to the
concept of “precision education” and “precision language education”. While,
nowadays, we often pay lip service to the notions of individual differences (e.g.
we say that no two learners are alike) and individualization/ personalization (because
of individual differences learners need individualized/ personalized assistance
to maximize learning outcomes), in reality learner-centredness is often reduced
to vague, relatively unstructured interventions such as group/ collaborative
work where individualization is meant to emerge from the interaction between
members of the group (students’ peers) and others, if possible, such as
teachers, friends and experts. This does not mean that group work or similar
interventions is useless or without value (it has many advantages), but it does
mean that, inevitably, we encounter conceptual vagueness that needs to be

Of course, the nature of (language) learning is different
from the nature of medical intervention with many more undefined, and perhaps
essentially undefinable, variables for any particular context. We may not be
able to be “precise” in all possible aspects of how we learn even though research
efforts to identify individual differences are not entirely new. However, despite
these efforts, a precision mindset has not become common, at least not yet. Perhaps
a change in mindsets (changing the way we look at things1)
by focusing on the word “precision” as a reference point may enable us to do
better. “Precision education” and “precision language education” might offer us
the opportunity to step outside the fuzziness of some of our current practices
(and/or sense of helplessness about them) and improve what we are doing. The
essential characteristic of precision (language) education is the desire to
access information that is as detailed and accurate as possible about learner
characteristics and performances in order to initiate the most effective
intervention in support of the students’ learning efforts. This implies, to the
extent possible (not all situations may permit this), conducting increasingly
accurate, often interdisciplinary, research to develop systems capable of
responding to learners’ individual needs or optimising group experiences by
tapping into shared learning mechanisms. Some of these systems will be
technological in nature or depend on technological support. Systems such as
these will become increasingly necessary as demand grows for both traditional
(classroom-based) and non-traditional (e.g. self-study) language-learning
opportunities in a world of hugely increasing globalization where English has
already become the lingua franca. This will be of special relevance in regions
such as ASEAN where the number of learners in need of high-level language
skills, often at short notice, will rise sharply as a result of the new
mobility opportunities provided by governments in the region.

While precision education is developing somewhat, precision
language education is essentially invisible. This can be gauged in the
following results from Google and Google scholar searches conducted on 28
October 20172 by
entering the phrases “precision education”, “precision medicine”
and “precision language education” into both Google and Google
scholar, and stipulating various years.



Precision Medicine

Precision Education

Precision Language Education



Google Scholar


Google Scholar


Google Scholar





































From these results, it is clear that the term
“precision education” has only recently begun to have any currency at
all while “precision language education” still has none. It also shows the
relative growth of the concept of “precision” in education.

While the Google searches above show a low-level presence
for “precision education” and no presence for “precision language education” on
the Internet, in fact some initiatives in both areas are actually underway even
though the detail of their activities remains somewhat unclear.

In what appears to be a radical move, National University in
the United States, on the initiative of its President, Dr. David Andrews, has
set precision education as a university priority for all sectors and has
created the National University Precision Institute in support of what will
clearly be a research-based initiative. The move flags that, henceforth, all
faculty members will need to develop a research-based mindset in relation to
pedagogy. In the Institute’s own words (on its webpage):

National University commits to
create a fully integrated, comprehensive educational environment by utilizing
advanced technologies, effective communication tools and interactive teaching
methodologies that guide and orchestrate the allocation of resources according
to the unique needs of individual students.

The Precision Education Initiative
at National University is a university-wide initiative that is creating a new
paradigm for student success by exploring ways to leverage technology, data,
and communications to create a truly customized learning experience for all
students. (“National
University Precision Institute,” 2017)

In a parallel development, the Center for Language Acquisition
and Precision Education (CLAPE) was established by a consortium of leading
universities (thus indicating the seriousness of the “precision education”
enterprise). Notably, CLAPE is physically located in Xi’an, China. In its
website’s own words:

The Center for Language Acquisition
& Precision Education (CLAPE) is an international cross-disciplinary
institute established through the cooperation of Yale University, Harvard
University, University of Toronto, Queen’s University, Brock University, Ohio
University, Xi’an Jiao Tong University, Shaanxi Normal University, Beijing
International Studies University, Xi’an International Studies University and
other research institutions. CLAPE is based in the city of Xi’an .. The
purpose of establishing CLAPE is to facilitate studies on language learning and
teaching by launching cross-discipline projects through fostering and
encouraging international cooperation. CLAPE will offer a platform for
worldwide scholars to strengthen academic communications and cooperation, to
transform academic findings and theories into practice, and to support
cross-disciplinary linguistic studies and education reforms based on a solid
foundation of evidence-based research. (“Center for
Language Acquisition & Precision Education,” 2017)


Definition of

Given that precision education is still in its infancy, there
is no fully agreed-upon understanding of the meaning of the word “precision”.
Elaborating slightly on previous comments, in the authors’ view, precision
education should, by virtue of the partial definition given above and the
spirit of the “precision” project, imply providing accurate, detailed, timely,
adaptive and contextualised personalised data so as to facilitate intervention
either by the learners themselves, teacher/experts or by teacher/expert
surrogates e.g. specially-constructed computer programs. It may not always be
possible to provide all of these features for precision support at any one
time, but these terms will serve as a reminder of what to aim for.

As a logical extension, precision education also implies the
performance of appropriate research to enable the provision of the accurate, detailed,
timely and contextualised personalized data required to accomplish the above.
Thus, the “precision” project is essentially research-based, ongoing
and open-ended, with new directions being identified in response to changes in
contexts and learners. At the same time, research performed should, in
principle, provide an increasingly accurate representation of how learning happens
in the population that it is serving and how it may evolve over time according
to circumstances.

Having said that, other forms of precision education have
been proposed which are more reflective of teacher control. Paradoxically, an
example of such an attitude comes from the Precision Education Blog at National
University, the home of precision education in the United States. One of the
professors writes: “I started with the course learning outcomes, which are
established, well-defined, and standardized. I took each of those and broke
them down into four to six micro-competencies. I knew different students would
learn those competencies differently, so I looked for a variety of learning
objects, or modes of learning, for each micro-competency.” Of course, the
intent here is to provide students with a variety of experiences from which to
choose and which, by virtue of this choice, would fit into the precision
education mould. What is lacking though, despite the clear goodwill displayed
by the professor in question, is the learners and their contributions. All the
choices appear to be made by the professor: he has broken the learning tasks
into “four to six microcompetencies”, he “looked for a variety of learning
objects”, he determined the “modes of learning” for each micro-competency. He
did this on behalf of learners but without their participation in any sense. At
best they are his guesses as to what would be suitable, or interesting, or valuable.
In this kind of precision education model, much if not all of the power remains
vested in the teacher with the students being given a choice of learning
materials and approaches rather than having no choice. Of course, this is
better than having no choice at all but lacks the level of autonomy and
student-centredness deriving from the concept of precision education. This
example demonstrates how, on the one hand and with all the good will in the
world, it is difficult to give up teacher-control and, on the other hand, how
complex precision education actually is. Arguably, though, this is only the
beginning of an iterative process that will develop over time and will lead to
the flexibility and student empowerment of true precision education.


Precision language education in action

With the preceding remarks as a background, what might a
learning system based on precision language education look like? Arguably, it
would be comprised of at least two elements:

a space for eliciting language performances and,
consequently, learner difficulties (if any) to be dealt with using precision-based
assistance, and

a space3
for providing precision-based assistance.


Eliciting language performances and learner
There are many possibilities for doing this. For instance, one could use a
task-based learning environment (e.g. Sangarun, 2010; Willis, 1996), a macrosimulation
environment (Lian, 2004, 2011; Lian & Mestre, 1985; Lian & Moore, 2014) or a Self-Organising Learning
Environment (SOLE) (Mitra & Dangwal, 2010). All three approaches share
the following characteristics: they are all focused on the performance of
complex communicative tasks drawing simultaneously on a multiplicity of
linguistic, cultural and other communicative skills. This means that learners
need to mobilise simultaneously the kinds of language skills required of them
in real-life settings.

These environments, perhaps embedded in a rhizomatic structure of great
flexibility and responsiveness (Lian, 2004, 2011) enable students to attempt to
perform language tasks and to notice/assess whether they have succeeded or
failed in accomplishing them. Success would require no significant action while
failure to perform would require some kind of intervention to assist with
task-completion. Such intervention could take many forms ranging from
consultation with peers, friends and/or experts (including teachers)
(face-to-face or online) to the use of specialised computer programs or other
forms of technological or human assistance.

Together, these support facilities will help constitute each learner’s Personal
Learning Environment (PLE): a unique combination of people and facilities
assembled by the learner, with or without external support (human or
technology-based) in an attempt to solve one or more of the learning problems at
hand (Lian & Pineda, 2014).

In closing this section, it should be pointed out that while we have argued in
favour of self-managed/self-adjusting/self-organizing environments for learning
within a precision-based mode, it is actually quite possible to implement
precision education in an environment where control is fully vested in a
teacher or other person in charge of the learning experience. In that case, one
assumes that the information collected by the teacher will be used to the benefit
of learners to meet their requirements.


Providing learners with precision-based

The question of what constitutes precision support in language education
remains open as we are still only just beginning to implement the concept in
educational circles. However, research does provide some pointers. Below are
three illustrative examples of what precision support in languages might look
like. With time there will certainly be many more and they will certainly be
more sophisticated than described here. Before doing so, however, it may be
worthwhile to distinguish between personalized language education and precision
language education


versus precision language education
While some do not distinguish between personalized
education and precision education, the distinction is usually made. In fact, precision
education tends to be seen as a component of full personalization (Ziegelstein, 2017). Others may argue that in fact it is
personalization which leads to the concept of precision education. From the
perspective of the writers of this article, it is suggested

1 Cf. Max Planck’s insightful statement (if actually
produced by Max Planck): “Change the way you look at things, and the things you
look at change” (Planck, n.d.).

2 This has changed slightly since then.

3 Of course, these spaces do not have to be physical
spaces, although they could be. They are essentially operational spaces in
whatever form is necessary at the time.