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Six Questions We Should Be Asking About Personalized Learning

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Too many Americans are dissatisfied with the state of public education. But have no fear—tech billionaires are here to save the day.

These education reformers with tech industry fortunes, like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, are leading the way in a nationwide push for "personalized learning," instruction tailored to individual students’ interests and needs, generally via ed-tech products designed to optimize student achievement. Legacy education companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill Education have also designed adaptive learning software that they claim can customize learning for each student in a classroom.

My home state of Massachusetts is totally on board. In 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education partnered with an education nonprofit to implement adaptive learning programs across more than 30 districts.

These adaptive learning programs use a data-driven approach to try to tailor instruction and improve student achievement. They aim to help students reach mastery by frequently assessing them and focusing on the gaps in their content knowledge. Curriculum is often prescribed, but there exists an option for algorithm adjustment so that teachers may modify content and assessments.

Though researchers and educators have raised questions about personalized learning’s effectiveness as a teaching tool, schools have continued to implement adaptive learning programs.

In part, this is because the American public perceives a national problem in education that schools need to fix. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 43 percent of parents are satisfied with the quality of K-12 education in America, even though 71 percent are satisfied with the quality of their child's K-12. Why do parents perceive there to be a national problem, when they are often satisfied with their own experiences?

The dilemma and sense of urgency has been framed by the private sector in order to pitch “solutions” or products. Rhetoric about “failing public schools” serves the agenda of pro-market education reformers. Personalized learning proponents make big promises to Americans to do things differently, to do things better. As tech giants make districts irresistible offers, it becomes increasingly important that we think critically and ask ourselves how personalized learning will impact public education—for both teachers and students.

Here are six questions districts often aren't asking, but need to be:

1. Does technology do more harm than good regarding social-emotional development?

There is research showing that technology negatively affects a young person’s social emotional development and learning. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Sherry Turkle is an expert on the subject. In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she writes that technology is actually making us feel more alone and is correlated with a decline in empathy. Technology deprives us of conversation—the kind that involves looking into each other's eyes, the kind you can’t shut off when things get uncomfortable or uninspiring. Turkle reminds us that moments of discomfort and boredom are crucial for healthy social-emotional development.

2. Do ed-tech products actually enable students to acquire knowledge more effectively than traditional teaching methods?

With the fast-paced nature of digital learning and the prescribed path of adaptive learning programs, one wonders whether students truly hold on to the digital information to which they are exposed. Without effortful thinking and making meaningful and emotional connections to concepts and ideas, we easily lose information. Arguably, the intimacy necessary for emotional experiences and personal connections is harder to cultivate in digital spaces. Because of this, it is doubtful that ed-tech products are more effective at helping students move information to long-term memory than learning methods used by humans for centuries.

3. Do we really want to emphasize mastery of content knowledge and skill?

Many personalized learning programs are mastery-based: Students move on when they successfully learn a new skill or set of content knowledge. But if the emphasis is placed on mastery, are we sending students the wrong message? Educators strive to instill a love of learning, foremost. The acquisition of content knowledge should be a secondary goal to nurturing a flexible mental state and the belief that you can get better at something with dedication, or as researcher Carol Dweck calls it, a growth mindset. As opposed to a fast track to perfection, we want our students to acknowledge imperfection without judgment, view challenges as opportunities, and ultimately value the process over the end result.

4. Do we value neatness as opposed to messiness?

As Ms. Frizzle from the '90s American classic children's television series says, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” When we engage authentically, we struggle. This “messiness” is part of learning and creating, and it is essential for growth. But standardized tools and processes common to adaptive learning programs don’t allow for the messy non-linear thinking and frustration that can lead to insight and creativity. Instead, they require students to progress along a prescribed path—making for a neat, “sterile” learning experience with fixed correct and incorrect answers.

5. Are ed-tech products another means of de-professionalizing teaching?

Teaching is an art that requires having both pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge. Prescribed curriculum sends a message to the public that decisions regarding teaching shouldn’t be left to teachers. Educators are professionals who should have autonomy in decisions regarding content and instruction. Adaptive learning and other types of personalized learning platforms undermine the art of teaching. As Turkle would say, we are the app. Humans, not tech platforms, are best able to merge knowledge domains and build relationships with children in order to differentiate instruction according to interest and need.

6. Might the widespread adoption of personalized learning lead to the hijacking of our public schools by powerful, white businessmen?

Attempts have been made to shift education from a public good to a private one, with vouchers, charters, and now personalized learning. The “education industry” is a potential cash cow for the private sector. Shiny initiatives, without data to back claims, are pitched to seductively draw us away from education as we know it. Change isn’t bad, but if Gates, Zuckerberg, and any other wealthy pro-market ed reformers have their way, we might find ourselves even more reliant on and attached to expensive tech.

The consumer in all of us is susceptible to buying what is being sold. We want to improve our schools, and businessmen know how to tap into our insecurities and fears. With healthy development of our children and public education at stake, we must think critically and resist a systemic transition to personalized learning.

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