Cultural Issues in Adaptive Education Systems

Brent McCauley


Adaptive education systems are based on an awareness of learner characteristics and behaviour, which enable the system to adapt the learning environment (content and delivery) to the needs and current position of the learner. This is done automatically based on the system’s assumptions about the learner, and their current level of knowledge.

The use of such systems takes place in a cultural context. Either the subject matter may belong to a particular cultural context, or the learner(s) may come from a particular cultural background, or both. This cultural context includes an epistemology, based on the particular world view of the culture. This epistemology may be fundamentally different from, or even in some ways opposed to the prevailing view directing the development of the system. This potential conflict can be illustrated by reference to the concept of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous peoples have a unique knowledge base, and there is a growing awareness of this, together with recognition of their rights to ownership and control of this knowledge. There is at present less of an awareness of the presence of a world view, which provides an epistemology which validates this knowledge, and determines how this knowledge should be disseminated.

This paper identifies three issues arising from this:

  1. The ability the system to allow the teacher to apply an appropriate pedagogy
  2. The ability of the system to make culturally appropriate assumption about learner behaviour
  3. Homogenisation of learning resulting from the globalisation of education.

The teacher or instructor defines the knowledge base of the subject being taught, designs the learning and assessment activities, and the criteria for measuring the learning that has taken place.

The pedagogy used is determined by the underlying epistemology. While the teacher is also the designer of the system, the system can take account of these factors. Increasingly in the future, such systems will be more generic, and the teacher will be a user, rather than designer of the system. The system therefore, must be capable of adapting to the possibility of an epistemology fundamentally different from that assumed by the designer of the system. Further, it must allow each application of the system to potentially be formed by a different epistemology.

The teacher is teaching a subject grounded in a culture; the culture ‘owns’ the knowledge, and that knowledge is formed, validated and imparted according to the understanding of knowledge of that culture. The system must recognise that ownership and the validity of the knowledge itself and the pedagogy employed.

The learner may be involved in learning which is ‘owned’ by the culture, or in learning which is more general. The latter situation will be come more common in the future, as the pace of globalisation of education increases.

In either case, the system must adapt to the current situation of the learner by making assumptions about the learner, based on generalisation for the new user, or on the user’s interaction with the system. Whether the individual learner is aware of it or not, their culture and the epistemology of that culture, together with their educational experience in that culture produces certain ways of learning which they find ‘comfortable’. The generalisations and assumptions made by the system must be able to take into account the cultural ‘world view’ which has formed the person, and according to which the person interacts with her/his environment. The learner’s interaction with the system needs to be interpreted according to this world view. As the same application of the system may be serving learners from a variety of cultural backgrounds, it needs take into account the prevailing epistemology of each of these backgrounds.

The rapid globalisation of education means that the learners using the system may be geographically dispersed and culturally diverse. With globalisation comes a tendency towards homogenisation. The cultural background and accompanying epistemology of the designers of adaptive education systems may give rise to certain assumptions, which in turn may limit pedagogical approaches used in the systems. In other words, the cultural understanding of the system designers may be imposed on all users of the system, which may not always be appropriate.

An area of research is to examine the extent to which presently existing adaptive education systems recognise and validate the culture of learners and teachers, and the inclusion of these factors in the direction such systems are developing. The very nature of indigenous knowledge, and the cultures to which it belongs, means there is a paucity of published research in this area, and most of the research that is published addresses the content of, rather than the epistemology associated with, the knowledge.