The following explanation in layman’s terms, quoted from apopular but respected website (WebMD) will explain the diagram a little:Precision medicine revolves aroundthe idea that a condition — like cancer or heart disease — in you isn’tnecessarily the same as in someone else. Instead, the genes you got from yourparents, and the environment you live in, can influence your health, thesymptoms you have, and even how well treatments might work. If scientists can understand theroot of these differences, they think they can develop treatments that are moreeffective.
andIt’s becoming clearer that medicineis not one-size-fits-all. For example, a treatment that helps shrink oneperson’s tumor or eases their arthritis symptoms doesn’t always work forsomebody else.Picture this: You get detailedtests 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, isabout matching the right drugs to the right people. But today it’s not yet possible forevery disease. So even though it sounds like a great idea, your doctor mightstill give you the standard drug that most other people get.
(WebMD, 2016)The same principles are applicable to (language) educationwith the focus now shifting away from group characteristics (e.g. statistics orthe often-recommended needs analyses) toward actual difficulties experienced bylearners as they engage with the learning process. This, in turn, leads to theconcept 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 (becauseof individual differences learners need individualized/ personalized assistanceto maximize learning outcomes), in reality learner-centredness is often reducedto vague, relatively unstructured interventions such as group/ collaborativework where individualization is meant to emerge from the interaction betweenmembers of the group (students’ peers) and others, if possible, such asteachers, friends and experts. This does not mean that group work or similarinterventions is useless or without value (it has many advantages), but it doesmean that, inevitably, we encounter conceptual vagueness that needs to beclarified.
Of course, the nature of (language) learning is differentfrom the nature of medical intervention with many more undefined, and perhapsessentially undefinable, variables for any particular context. We may not beable to be “precise” in all possible aspects of how we learn even though researchefforts to identify individual differences are not entirely new. However, despitethese efforts, a precision mindset has not become common, at least not yet.
Perhapsa change in mindsets (changing the way we look at things1)by focusing on the word “precision” as a reference point may enable us to dobetter. “Precision education” and “precision language education” might offer usthe 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. Theessential characteristic of precision (language) education is the desire toaccess information that is as detailed and accurate as possible about learnercharacteristics and performances in order to initiate the most effectiveintervention in support of the students’ learning efforts. This implies, to theextent possible (not all situations may permit this), conducting increasinglyaccurate, often interdisciplinary, research to develop systems capable ofresponding to learners’ individual needs or optimising group experiences bytapping into shared learning mechanisms. Some of these systems will betechnological in nature or depend on technological support. Systems such asthese will become increasingly necessary as demand grows for both traditional(classroom-based) and non-traditional (e.g.
self-study) language-learningopportunities in a world of hugely increasing globalization where English hasalready become the lingua franca. This will be of special relevance in regionssuch as ASEAN where the number of learners in need of high-level languageskills, often at short notice, will rise sharply as a result of the newmobility opportunities provided by governments in the region.While precision education is developing somewhat, precisionlanguage education is essentially invisible. This can be gauged in thefollowing results from Google and Google scholar searches conducted on 28October 20172 byentering the phrases “precision education”, “precision medicine”and “precision language education” into both Google and Googlescholar, and stipulating various years. Precision Medicine Precision Education Precision Language Education Year Google Google Scholar Google Google Scholar Google Google Scholar 2017 187,000 15,500 214 11 0 0 2016 141,000 15,600 98 11 0 0 2015 86,800 9,920 46 8 0 0 2014 44,100 6,100 48 7 0 0 2013 27,300 4,470 38 8 0 0 From these results, it is clear that the term”precision education” has only recently begun to have any currency atall while “precision language education” still has none. It also shows therelative growth of the concept of “precision” in education. While the Google searches above show a low-level presencefor “precision education” and no presence for “precision language education” onthe Internet, in fact some initiatives in both areas are actually underway eventhough the detail of their activities remains somewhat unclear.In what appears to be a radical move, National University inthe United States, on the initiative of its President, Dr.
David Andrews, hasset precision education as a university priority for all sectors and hascreated the National University Precision Institute in support of what willclearly be a research-based initiative. The move flags that, henceforth, allfaculty members will need to develop a research-based mindset in relation topedagogy. In the Institute’s own words (on its webpage):National University commits tocreate a fully integrated, comprehensive educational environment by utilizingadvanced technologies, effective communication tools and interactive teachingmethodologies that guide and orchestrate the allocation of resources accordingto the unique needs of individual students.The Precision Education Initiativeat National University is a university-wide initiative that is creating a newparadigm for student success by exploring ways to leverage technology, data,and communications to create a truly customized learning experience for allstudents.
(“NationalUniversity Precision Institute,” 2017)In a parallel development, the Center for Language Acquisitionand Precision Education (CLAPE) was established by a consortium of leadinguniversities (thus indicating the seriousness of the “precision education”enterprise). Notably, CLAPE is physically located in Xi’an, China. In itswebsite’s own words:The Center for Language Acquisition& Precision Education (CLAPE) is an international cross-disciplinaryinstitute established through the cooperation of Yale University, HarvardUniversity, University of Toronto, Queen’s University, Brock University, OhioUniversity, Xi’an Jiao Tong University, Shaanxi Normal University, BeijingInternational Studies University, Xi’an International Studies University andother research institutions. CLAPE is based in the city of Xi’an .. Thepurpose of establishing CLAPE is to facilitate studies on language learning andteaching by launching cross-discipline projects through fostering andencouraging international cooperation. CLAPE will offer a platform forworldwide scholars to strengthen academic communications and cooperation, totransform academic findings and theories into practice, and to supportcross-disciplinary linguistic studies and education reforms based on a solidfoundation of evidence-based research.
(“Center forLanguage Acquisition & Precision Education,” 2017) Definition ofprecisionGiven that precision education is still in its infancy, thereis no fully agreed-upon understanding of the meaning of the word “precision”.Elaborating slightly on previous comments, in the authors’ view, precisioneducation should, by virtue of the partial definition given above and thespirit of the “precision” project, imply providing accurate, detailed, timely,adaptive and contextualised personalised data so as to facilitate interventioneither by the learners themselves, teacher/experts or by teacher/expertsurrogates e.g. specially-constructed computer programs. It may not always bepossible to provide all of these features for precision support at any onetime, but these terms will serve as a reminder of what to aim for.As a logical extension, precision education also implies theperformance 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, ongoingand open-ended, with new directions being identified in response to changes incontexts and learners. At the same time, research performed should, inprinciple, provide an increasingly accurate representation of how learning happensin the population that it is serving and how it may evolve over time accordingto circumstances.Having said that, other forms of precision education havebeen proposed which are more reflective of teacher control. Paradoxically, anexample of such an attitude comes from the Precision Education Blog at NationalUniversity, the home of precision education in the United States. One of theprofessors writes: “I started with the course learning outcomes, which areestablished, well-defined, and standardized.
I took each of those and brokethem down into four to six micro-competencies. I knew different students wouldlearn those competencies differently, so I looked for a variety of learningobjects, or modes of learning, for each micro-competency.” Of course, theintent here is to provide students with a variety of experiences from which tochoose and which, by virtue of this choice, would fit into the precisioneducation mould. What is lacking though, despite the clear goodwill displayedby the professor in question, is the learners and their contributions. All thechoices appear to be made by the professor: he has broken the learning tasksinto “four to six microcompetencies”, he “looked for a variety of learningobjects”, he determined the “modes of learning” for each micro-competency. Hedid this on behalf of learners but without their participation in any sense. Atbest 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 remainsvested in the teacher with the students being given a choice of learningmaterials and approaches rather than having no choice.
Of course, this isbetter than having no choice at all but lacks the level of autonomy andstudent-centredness deriving from the concept of precision education. Thisexample demonstrates how, on the one hand and with all the good will in theworld, it is difficult to give up teacher-control and, on the other hand, howcomplex precision education actually is. Arguably, though, this is only thebeginning of an iterative process that will develop over time and will lead tothe flexibility and student empowerment of true precision education. Precision language education in actionWith the preceding remarks as a background, what might alearning system based on precision language education look like? Arguably, itwould be comprised of at least two elements:1. a space for eliciting language performances and,consequently, learner difficulties (if any) to be dealt with using precision-basedassistance, and2. a space3for providing precision-based assistance. 1.
Eliciting language performances and learnerdifficultiesThere are many possibilities for doing this. For instance, one could use atask-based learning environment (e.g. Sangarun, 2010; Willis, 1996), a macrosimulationenvironment (Lian, 2004, 2011; Lian & Mestre, 1985; Lian & Moore, 2014) or a Self-Organising LearningEnvironment (SOLE) (Mitra & Dangwal, 2010). All three approaches sharethe following characteristics: they are all focused on the performance ofcomplex communicative tasks drawing simultaneously on a multiplicity oflinguistic, cultural and other communicative skills. This means that learnersneed to mobilise simultaneously the kinds of language skills required of themin real-life settings.These environments, perhaps embedded in a rhizomatic structure of greatflexibility and responsiveness (Lian, 2004, 2011) enable students to attempt toperform language tasks and to notice/assess whether they have succeeded orfailed in accomplishing them. Success would require no significant action whilefailure to perform would require some kind of intervention to assist withtask-completion.
Such intervention could take many forms ranging fromconsultation with peers, friends and/or experts (including teachers)(face-to-face or online) to the use of specialised computer programs or otherforms of technological or human assistance.Together, these support facilities will help constitute each learner’s PersonalLearning Environment (PLE): a unique combination of people and facilitiesassembled by the learner, with or without external support (human ortechnology-based) in an attempt to solve one or more of the learning problems athand (Lian & Pineda, 2014). In closing this section, it should be pointed out that while we have argued infavour of self-managed/self-adjusting/self-organizing environments for learningwithin a precision-based mode, it is actually quite possible to implementprecision education in an environment where control is fully vested in ateacher or other person in charge of the learning experience. In that case, oneassumes that the information collected by the teacher will be used to the benefitof learners to meet their requirements.
2. Providing learners with precision-basedassistanceThe question of what constitutes precision support in language educationremains open as we are still only just beginning to implement the concept ineducational circles. However, research does provide some pointers. Below arethree illustrative examples of what precision support in languages might looklike. With time there will certainly be many more and they will certainly bemore sophisticated than described here. Before doing so, however, it may beworthwhile to distinguish between personalized language education and precisionlanguage education Personalizedversus precision language educationWhile some do not distinguish between personalizededucation and precision education, the distinction is usually made.
In fact, precisioneducation tends to be seen as a component of full personalization (Ziegelstein, 2017). Others may argue that in fact it ispersonalization which leads to the concept of precision education. From theperspective of the writers of this article, it is suggested 1 Cf. Max Planck’s insightful statement (if actuallyproduced by Max Planck): “Change the way you look at things, and the things youlook at change” (Planck, n.
d.).2 This has changed slightly since then.3 Of course, these spaces do not have to be physicalspaces, although they could be. They are essentially operational spaces inwhatever form is necessary at the time.