Privacy & Security Opinion

Gates and Murdoch “Personalize” Learning with Larger Classes and Big Data Systems

By Anthony Cody — April 01, 2013 4 min read
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Do you ever get the feeling that your mind has been boggled once too often? That was my reaction when I read this enthusiastic report about the way the next generation’s educational experience will be “personalized” by the tremendous data systems being developed by Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.

The Gates Foundation has worked with Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify to create a new non-profit called inBloom. (formerly the Shared Learning Collaborative). Their mission is “inform and involve each student and teacher with data and tools designed to personalize learning.” This story explains:

To personalize learning, the first part is diagnostics - where are [students] on the learning path? - and the second part is, once you know where they are on the learning path, what's the next step?," said Streichenberger. InBloom's services address both needs.
By creating a neutral, nonprofit group to help connect the data, the hope is that schools won't encounter as much friction when companies and organizations want to access student data for assessment programs or other ed tech tools.

The service that inBloom will provide is to host all the data mined from all the assessments and surveys students take, beginning in pre-kindergarten. This is essential for the functioning of the for-profit testing and ranking industry, and also necessary for the data-dependent teacher evaluation processes they envision. But did you catch the reason this has been farmed out to a custom-made non-profit? To avoid “friction.” But friction is growing, as people are learning that the data trove being built will be readily available to all sorts of companies who will be hired by school districts and states.

We are being led towards a system developed by people such as Bill Gates, who proudly describes himself as a “technocrat.”

Here, in his words, is his vision:

Teachers have not had these tools before. Fragmented standards that differ from state to state and district to district have made it hard for innovators to design tools to reach a wide market. The common core will help change that.
In the classroom of the not-too-far-off future, kids will have computer devices with phenomenal interactive content. This will allow teachers to do what they call "flip the classroom." Instead of learning a concept in class and applying it at home, students would learn the concept at home, on video, and apply it in class, where they can get help from the teacher.
When students learn a concept on video, they can take as much time as they need and learn at their own pace. They can pause the video, rewind it, or just listen to it all over again.
Then the students can use class time to do the problems. The teacher sees instantly on the dashboard which kids are getting it, and steps in if someone is stuck. The students move on when they master the material, and not before. This is very different from the old method where every student moves on to the next topic after the test, whether you got an A or a D.
Now we finally have the answer to the old riddle of education - 'do you teach to the faster kids or the slower kids?' This technology will let you teach each child. And often, when the so-called 'slower kids' are given the time and attention they need to master a core concept, it turns out they accelerate - and they're faster than anyone thought.

So learning is personalized when each student has their own device that they can control to move at their own pace. And “common” standards allow “innovators” - publishers and technology companies, to design products that can be sold across the nation, without being obstructed by different state-level standards. How personal!

It makes sense that Gates would come up with this. When he attended Lakeside school several decades ago, the school allowed him access to an early computer, and he and his friend Paul Allen learned how to program while in their teens.

But when this is brought to “scale,” as every worthwhile reform apparently must be, we get something entirely different from his Lakeside experience.

Let’s begin with class sizes. Two years ago, Gates began a concerted effort in this regard:

Gates proposes ending class-size reduction experiments, lifting caps on class size and offering good teachers financial incentives to teach more students.
If you look at something like class sizes going from 22 to 27, and paying that teacher a third of the savings, and you make sure it's the effective teachers you're retaining," he said, "by any measure, you're raising the quality of education as you do that."

As welearned last week, in places like Memphis, Tennessee, where the Gates Foundation has invested $90 million, teachers face larger class sizes, the elimination of pay for advanced degrees, and an expensive team of consultants hard at work on a merit pay plan.

We get Common Core standards, that establish performance benchmarks that determine what every child ought to be able to do in order to be “on track for college and career.” This is the antithesis of personalization, which ought to mean an appreciation for the diverse talents and abilities our students bring to school.

We get more frequent tests, which are likewise “personalized.” The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests which were the focus of the test boycott in Seattle this year are described here:

Created by educators for educators, MAP assessments provide detailed, actionable data about where each child is on their unique learning path. Because student engagement is essential to any testing experience, NWEA works with educators to create test items that interest children and help to capture detail about what they know and what they're ready to learn. It's information teachers can use in the classroom to help every child, every day.
Adapting the Test to the Student
MAP dynamically adapts to a student's responses - as they take the test.

  • Answer a question correctly and the test presents a more challenging item
  • Miss a question, and MAP offers a simpler item
In this way, the test narrows in on a student's learning level, engaging them with content that allows them to succeed.

Again, a vision of personalization, right?

But while technocrats are brilliant at devising systems to monitor everyone and everything, they are not such great predictors of the human response to this.

Here is what educators at Garfield High in Seattle had to say:

Our teachers have come together and agree that the MAP test is not good for our students, nor is it an appropriate or useful tool in measuring progress," says Kris McBride, who serves as Academic Dean and Testing Coordinator at Garfield. "Additionally, students don't take it seriously. It produces specious results, and wreaks havoc on limited school resources during the weeks and weeks the test is administered."
McBride explained that the MAP test, which stands for Measure of Academic Progress, is administered two to three times each year to 9th grade students as well as those receiving extra support services. The students are told the test will have no impact on their grades or class standing, and, because of this, students tend to give it little thought to the test and hurry through it. In addition, there seems to be little overlap between what teachers are expected to teach (state and district standards) and what is measured on the test.

The Seattle schools were planning to use the results from these tests as part of teacher evaluations. More of the great feedback that Mr. Gates says has been missing from teacher evaluations in the past.

We learned from George Orwell several decades ago that when government wants to do something to which the people may object, they often resort to “doublespeak.”

In this case, larger classes jammed with students focused on computer screens are somehow more “personalized.” Learning mediated and measured by frequent computerized tests is “adapted” to the student.

The key word within personalization is “person.” Gates and the technocrats make the computer, rather than the person, the center of our educational endeavor.

Genuine personalization is revealed when we look at the school the Gates’ have chosen for their own children:

Lakeside's 5th- to 12th-grade student-centered academic program focuses on the relationships between talented students and capable and caring teachers. We develop and nurture students' passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known.
Each student's curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.

Teachers, parents and students know very well what personalized learning looks and feels like. It requires small class sizes. And in areas impacted by economic crisis, students need even smaller classes, and more personal attention.

A personalized learning environment is driven by the relationships between learners and one another, and with their teacher. That is why class size is so important. That is why it is so important to honor the knowledge, skill and culture that our students bring to school - because a respectful relationship with each student is based on our acceptance of them, and our desire to help them achieve their goals, rather than force them to meet predetermined benchmarks.

Trust is the key element missing from the technocratic vision. There is no trust in the teacher, we must be monitored, measured and managed. There is especially no trust in the students, who will soon find themselves measured and benchmarked to within an inch of their highly personalized lives.

But just as respect is a two-way street, so is trust. And many of the subjects of this expanding system of personalized supervision are objecting, and even opting out. In spite of the best-laid plans, the technocrats may find friction ahead for their all-inclusive data systems.

What do you think? Are your students experiencing a higher level of personalization thanks to the tests and data systems being introduced?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony Cody on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.