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What We Lose with Personalization (Part 1)

By Justin Reich — July 09, 2012 3 min read
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Given the near universal agreement across a wide range of educators that personalization has tremendous potential for education, I’ve started thinking more about the threat posed by personalization. I have two stories, with two morals. Moral #1 is that education for civic purposes cannot be personalized. Moral #2 is that (some forms of) personalization will optimize measureable outcomes at the expense of (potentially more important) non-measurable outcomes.

I’ll do story #1 today, but first let me say that I think increased personalization has tremendous potential to be a powerful positive force in education. It also has the potential to profoundly reduce education to a narrow focus on preparation for narrowly constructed assessments. My hunch is that, in general in the decades ahead, wealthy kids in the U.S. will get the best versions of personalization and poor kids the worst, and the trend will accelerate educational inequality. (I’ve written a fair amount about digital inequities, like here and here.)

As I’ve written before, there are essentially two versions of personalization. The one favored by people interested in scale, metrics, privatizing education, and so forth is where we use technology to measure individually student progress towards standardized curricula. The one favored by progressive, maker-types, and Dewey-inspired folks is that we use networked resources to empower students to pursue their individual interests.

Both versions are essentially incompatible with my view of what makes for a meaningful education in history and civics. Schools serve three purposes: to prepare people for gainful employment, to prepare people to contribute to our democracy, and to enrich the human experience. History and civic education are fundamental to the latter two.

There are several key facets to meaningful history education: teaching students the thinking skills employed by historians, helping students learn to mine the past to make sense of the present to shape the future, nurturing students’ ability to craft historical arguments in multiple media. Some facets of these learning opportunities could be personalized in various forms, such as letting students pursue individual research projects.

But one essential facet to preparing students for citizenship can’t be personalized: the opportunity to participate in civic and deliberative discussions. Few people in their lives run for office, participate in town meeting, work for campaigns, or join activist groups. We vote infrequently, we sign petitions occasionally, we volunteer sometimes. Many people, however, engage in discussions on the issues of the day in person and online, and these discussions—whether we participate or lurk—are a vital part of our democracy. I want my history students to learn to converse: to listen carefully to others, to make arguments drawing on evidence, to defend their convictions, and to open their mind on points of ambiguity or ambivalence. Ideally, they have opportunities to do with a group of peers as diverse as possible: culturally, economically, politically, and so forth. (Diane Hess is my favorite researcher about deliberative democracy in classrooms.)

This kind of learning experience is vital to a functional democracy, and incompatible with learning environments with high levels of personalization. You need to have students work through content together, work through primary sources together, work through writing together, and finally come together to share their thoughts and ideas through discussion, dialogue and debate.

I could imagine learning environments where parts of the student experience (learning grammar, practicing math algorithms) are optimized in thoughtful ways using personalization technology, where other parts of the student experience allow for individual experimentation and research, and where time still remains for students to form learning communities devoted to the study of our shared history and civic responsibilities. I can also imagine learning environments devoted to personalization that obliterate meaningful opportunities for collaborative, connected civic learning.

More later this week on the risk of optimizing the measurable at the risk of neglecting the immeasurable.

Finally, a huge thanks to Ryan and Sebastian who wrote very popular and very thoughtful posts in my absence last week.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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