The idea of personalized learning in K-12 education surely isn’t new. But in recent years, there has been a greater focus on ensuring students have more personalized learning experiences to help them catch up or accelerate their learning.
With the recent advances in artificial intelligence and other adaptive technologies, there are more ways to “transform the future of school” into a more “personal learning experience,” suggests Shantanu Sinha, the vice president and general manager for Google for Education.
Google’s products are very popular with K-12 educators. Many teachers use Google Classroom to share assignments with students, and most districts turned to Chromebooks during the pandemic to provide 1-to-1 computing.
Still, some critics have raised concerns about the downsides of a big tech company like Google having so much influence over K-12 education, specifically potential data privacy problems. Those concerns transfer over to the increasing use of digital tools to personalize learning.
In an email interview with Education Week, Sinha discussed how the adoption of personalized learning in K-12 has changed, the role of technology in personalized learning, and how AI will likely impact efforts to personalize learning.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How has the adoption of personalized learning in K-12 schools changed in the last 5 or 10 years?
What’s changed is that teachers now have the tools to make this easier. The pandemic didn’t change the trajectory of education, but it did force people to adapt quickly to a new reality and set new baselines that open up interesting avenues for learning.
During the pandemic, when schools went remote, many districts invested in one Chromebook for each student. What does it mean to provide all the students in a classroom with more persistent access to a wide variety of learning apps and experiences? What happens when we provide the flexibility to learn from anywhere? We open up possibilities both in the classroom and outside.
We [also] have more tools to provide truly individualized 1-to-1 support. For example, students can receive in-the-moment hints every time they don’t know how to solve a problem, whether they are in the classroom or at home. In the past, a student might finish an entire math assignment while slightly misunderstanding a concept and ingrain the wrong habits before getting their graded assignment back. Practice can make perfect, but practicing the right way is important.
If we bring distracting or unhelpful technologies to them, we do them a disservice.
Too often, discussions about personalized learning focus too much on technology. What role do you think technology plays in personalized learning?
It’s a great point to be cognizant of. At the end of the day, teachers are and will always be the heart of the learning experience. Every classroom is different, and educators are experimenting with many different approaches, whether it is small group instruction, high-dosage tutoring, or more goal-oriented work. Technology is simply an enabler and can help give teachers more time back and allow them to better scale themselves.
For us at Google, we believe that technology can help elevate the teacher and help give them time back to invest in themselves and their students. It isn’t about technology for technology’s sake—we are at a time when education leaders are dealing with teacher shortages, student learning loss, and tighter budgets. If we bring distracting or unhelpful technologies to them, we do them a disservice.
It’s also important because the role of the teacher is changing … from providers of knowledge to designers of learning. Teachers still provide access to information, but they now also need to ‘choreograph’ students’ learning experiences. So when we talk about how technology can support personal learning, it’s very much about helping teachers help themselves and their students.
How do you think generative AI will impact personalized learning?
First and foremost, when it comes to any AI application, we ask ourselves: How are we benefiting teachers and students? Is what we’re doing appropriate for education—is it responsible, safe, and secure? We are very active in staying close to the teaching community in hearing feature requests and testing new ideas. Of course, we get requests from educators to apply generative AI into our tools, but we need to be cognizant to balance innovation with responsibility.
For educators looking to get started with AI to help support personalized learning, what steps should they take?
Regardless of the tools you use, I urge anyone interested in thinking about AI to stay centered on the end goal of the technology—is it to help students learn particular concepts? Is it to help teachers to get creative and scale themselves? Does it bring a new dimension to instruction that you deeply need? Be relentlessly focused on helpfulness and always consider the positives and potential shortcomings of any new technology.
Again, it all comes down to the educator and their students—we trust those doing the hard work of teaching and if they find value in the technology, we follow their instincts and insights. We do our best to build technology in service of helping bring out their best.