Special Report

Why Does Personalized Learning Sometimes Feel Impersonal?

Worried about students’ social detachment in tech-based learning, some schools are trying to weave social-emotional support into lessons
By Sarah D. Sparks — November 06, 2018 8 min read
Students in Christina Hanna and Kelly Pollack’s class spread out as they work on assignments at Chicago International Charter School West Belden. Hanna and Pollack co-teach the class of about 60 3rd and 4th graders.
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Fourth graders aren’t great at keeping secrets, but in Jeremy Crowe’s class, they stand shoulder to shoulder and try to stay poker-faced as they pass a small beanbag behind their backs. A girl in the middle of their circle scrutinizes each face, trying to guess who has the toy.

The game is part of the class’ morning meeting—based on the theme “How do we reveal ourselves to others?"—and the students’ conversation wraps in role-playing for handling distracting friends as well as ways to create a new character for a class writing assignment on the Lexia reading program.

These morning meetings are one of the ways the Chicago International Charter School Bucktown tries to build personal connections among students and teachers, even as students split to follow individual paths in the school’s learning platforms. Distinctive Schools, the Chicago-based charter network that runs Bucktown, has made social-emotional development and class culture the centerpiece of its model.

But a focus on personal relationships is “not the norm” in personalized learning, said Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, which has tracked the evolution of personalized learning. “Schools are becoming aware of the need for social and emotional supports, … but we’re still in a very early stage of figuring out how to do that really well,” Arnett said. “Early on, the focus on technology in personalized learning has often been misguided.”

A Personal Disconnect

Even as personalized learning spreads rapidly among U.S. schools, critics contend the term often is a misnomer.

While tech-based platforms tailor content, they can paradoxically detatch students from the personal relationships with teachers and peers that are critical to learning. That’s why schools like Bucktown and its sister campus, West Belden, are looking for ways to reconnect students in and out of technology.

From curriculum playlists to enrichment computer labs, many personalized learning programs pitch technology as a way to engage students. There’s evidence that students do get more engaged in the digital learning platforms themselves, but studies have found more lackluster effects for engaging students in their class communities.

A national survey released in June by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, which advocates for better use of digital learning in schools, found teachers in personalized learning schools reported less familiarity with their students and their lives outside of school, and less focus on students’ interests and motivations, than their colleagues in traditional schools. Even schools that had received grants through the Next Generation Learning Challenges organization spent less time than other schools did having one-on-one meetings discussing students’ strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and the personalized learning teachers reported they were knowledgable about fewer of their students’ home lives, communities, and interests.

That disconnect can hinder the programs’ overall effectiveness. In one recent study, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research compared traditional face-to-face credit recovery with online, personalized learning credit-recovery programs, which often emphasize a more individualized learning approach.

“We found that with the students who took the online class, the content was more rigorous, it was more coherently aligned—and students learned less, they were more likely to fail, and they got lower grades,” said Elaine Allensworth, a co-author of the study. “Even though the face-to-face class often was incoherent, and the teacher didn’t get through all of the material. Even when the students themselves thought the class wasn’t too good, they actually learned more with that face-to-face teacher.”

Findings like those point to why technology-driven, personalized learning models sometimes show mixed success, according to Robert Slavin, the director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.

“Many have assumed the reason tutoring works is it individualizes, it adapts to the content needs of the child—and many have argued that tech is a much lower-cost, more-reliable version of tutoring,” said Slavin, also the founder of Success for All, a school improvement model focused on tutoring. “But the evidence says absolutely not. Real, concentrated help is more than just individualization; it’s someone saying, ‘I’m here, I care about you.’ ”

Building Real Connections

The Montana Digital Academy, the Western state’s virtual school, realized its mostly rural students needed more explicit supports after an evaluation by the Regional Education Lab Northwest found they were significantly less likely to recover credits if enrolled in only one class at a time and were not connected to local adults.

Questions to Ask to Make Learning More Personal

School leaders should ask some key questions about the personal aspects of a technology-based, personalized-learning program:

  • What social and emotional skills do students need—for example, willingness to seek help and self-organization—in order to use the technology platform effectively?
  • Will every student have at least one consistent adult checking in with him or her weekly, and will this include more than just a data review?
  • Does your program provide more social and emotional supports for students who were already disengaged from face-to-face learning environments?
  • What opportunities will students have to collaborate with their peers? Are there differences in the opportunities for advanced or struggling students?
  • How are you monitoring class climate and students’ sense of belonging?

Source: Education Week

“When we move toward a personalized environment for credit recovery, part of what often gets missed is it’s going to be more labor intensive to do that. It takes a village to teach an online student,” said Jason Neiffer, an assistant director of the academy. “Our students need social support, self-planning, and self-regulation. If a student could handle a credit-recovery class all by themselves without a teacher, they probably wouldn’t be a credit-recovery student.”

In response, the academy beefed up teacher and student profiles, adding audio introductions from each teacher and details about student interests and goals in their profiles. The software now automatically alerts a teacher and a local facilitator when a student scores below 65 percent on any project or quiz and invites the student to 24-hour tutoring help from local teachers.

The school was honored this July for having 65 percent of its students recover their high school credits, a higher percentage than typical in the state.

And the school is now piloting a new class format that includes an audio discussion board to foster more of a sense of a class debate.

“What we don’t want is 35 kids in a classroom, nose down into their laptops, not physically separated but philosophically separated,” he said.

‘Make Eye Contact’

Arnett of the Clayton Christensen Institute argues that technology platforms can provide important data to help teachers connect with their students—if they have time to analyze them.

Online learning platforms can provide detailed data on how students are progressing, and even when they tend to engage or procrastinate, Arnett said. And introverted students often feel more comfortable answering questions or expressing themselves online than when called on in class.

But for teachers to make use of the data, they need time to collaborate with their colleagues and ways to integrate data from the often multiple and separate content platforms students use, he said. “Otherwise, many teachers end up defaulting to not looking at that data or just looking at one platform.”

Teachers at Bucktown in West Belden, for example, have 90 minutes of collaboration time each day to analyze data from the platforms and plan future lessons, according to Bucktown Principal Sarah O’Connell.

Distinctive Schools, the network of personalized learning charters that operates the Chicago International Charter Schools in both Bucktown and West Belden, also decided to establish more explicit lessons to help students learn to work together using its various online platforms.

In one 60-student mixed class of 3rd and 4th graders at West Belden, students interviewed their partners about similarities among characters in two stories. While two teachers and a special education paraprofessional broke out small groups of students, co-teacher Kelly Pollack gently nudged pairs to “make eye contact with your partner while you’re talking” and “keep each other focused.”

‘What Are You Interested In?’

In middle school, where students spend much more of the class day learning online via tools such as the Summit Learning Platform, teachers incorporate frequent group or paired projects to keep students talking to one another.

In Sarah Mitman’s 8th grade science class, Alan Aguilar and Andy Tribo argue over the benefits and risks of farming genetically modified fish. Over three days, the boys were each assigned a side to research on their own, but then came together to try to convince each other. Soon, both boys would have to decide which argument they believe.

“The final project is a Socratic seminar on genetic technology, so now they need to practice formal debate and how to bring their arguments and evidence to the table,” Mitman said.

The charter network has also tried to provide more formal ways for teachers and students to connect, such as weekly one-on-one sessions with a mentor-teacher who students keep throughout their K-8 careers.

Teachers also hold “empathy interviews” with each student at the beginning of the year. The detailed questions cover everything from what a typical day looks like in the student’s home to prior school assignments that excited them.

The Great Schools Partnership, a separate alliance of 21 New England secondary schools that use personalized learning, has found through internal study and observations that schools that use formal advisory periods and mentors develop stronger class cultures and teacher-student relationships.

“It’s not about just providing kids a menu and saying go do this on your own,” said Mark Kostin, the associate director of the partnership. “It’s a teacher saying, ‘What are you interested in?’ ”

Student Voices


“They partner an older student and a younger student. ... We buddy up with the younger kids and we help to educate them on how to help other students and how to develop friendships.”
Ricardo Astorga, 8th grade, Chicago International Charter School West Belden


We’re about half and half, working with other kids and on our own on the iPad. I like in science, we’re working with other kids on an experiment to pick a plant and make it really big; my partner Eric chose pumpkin and I chose pumpkin too, and we give it a lot of sunlight.”
Juan Valdez, 4th grade, Chicago International Charter School Bucktown

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Face-to-Face, Personal Connections Given Greater Attention in Classes


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