Tech Will Not Personalize Learning

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At the moment, one of the hot education terms is “personalized learning”. It sounds pretty good, maybe something that we should be doing in schools. As opposed to all that unpersonalized learning currently happening in classrooms.

The problem is that no one is clear about what “personalized” learning really is, a point clearly illustrated by a writer in The New Yorker1 who says the concept is messy.

Danusis [principal at the school profiled in the first part of the article] and her teaching staff practice personalized learning, an individual-comes-first approach, usually aided by laptops, that has become a reformist calling card in education.

Personalized learning argues that the entrepreneurial nature of the knowledge economy and the gaping need, diversity, and unmanageable size of a typical public-school classroom are ill-served by the usual arrangement of a teacher lecturing at a blackboard.

Advocates of personalized learning say that the approach has been unfairly conflated with teacherless, online-only education. They invoke Dewey and Freire and Montessori as guiding lights and take pains to emphasize, in almost liturgical unison, that personalized learning is not about tech—and that “tech is just a tool.”

No, it’s not about the tech. Which is interesting since much of the push for personalized learning is coming from edtech companies. Walk the vendor floor at ISTE or any of the other over-sized tech conferences and count the number products that promise to personalize learning for your kids.

Anyway, two other parts of the personalized learning hype that should raise concerns comes from it’s intersections with the charter business and the usual cast of tech billionaires who believe their software is the magic key to fixing schools.

Charter schools are the bluntest incarnation of education reform and have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Last year’s wave of teachers’ strikes, though, popularized the critique that charters divert funding from traditional public schools and undercut union standards. Personalized learning, meanwhile, is as ascendant a reform as ever, boosted by many of the same philanthropic entities that have promoted charters: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Intermediary funders and education-policy groups that depend on their grant dollars—including iNACOL, Excel in Ed, the Learning Accelerator, Big Picture Learning, and Jobs for the Future—have, in turn, made personalized learning a priority. Karla Phillips, a policy director at Excel in Ed, told me that both personalized learning and charter schools have “flexibility” as their aim.

Personalized learning systems have been adopted by many of the major charter companies as a way to reduce the number of teachers needed, often in the name of making them more “productive”, as well as flexible. Many of the Rhode Island schools visited by the writer were using personalization systems from Summit Learning, developed, in part, by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

None of those somewhat suspicious connections would matter if personalized learning actually “worked”. So, where’s the evidence?

Yet the academic and policy research behind it is thin. A few local pilot programs have been shown to slightly improve test scores and teacher satisfaction, but a 2017 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation to study forty Gates-funded schools, reads like a shrug. “Although advocates and reformers have developed PL models,” the RAND authors observed, “many of the component practices are relatively common nationally, making it difficult to clearly identify what makes a school a PL school.”

Of course, this study (and the vast major of other education research) assumes that student scores on standardized tests is a valid measure of “learning”. And that the tests themselves are valid.

And that highlights one of the major problems with “personalized” learning systems.

The question of what kids should be learning in K12 should be the starting point. Instead developers at the tech companies like Summit, along with the school administrators who sign the contracts to buy their products, assume that the curriculum and assessments already in place are credible and will best serve student needs.

That hardware and software by itself will transform learning.


Image by Brad Flickinger, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Trying to access the article can be a little messy in itself since the website really, REALLY wants you to register. I recommend saving it to a read-later service (like Instapaper), which makes it much easier to read.

2. The writer includes a disclaimer noting that the Gates and Hewlett Foundations and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are among the many funders of The Hechinger Report which partnered on this story.

Screen Time Isn’t The Right Issue

Getting Online

Too much screen time is harmful for children.

Many teachers, parents, and others who work with kids have accepted this as the gospel truth. But where is the evidence of this “truth”?

Two UK researchers who have done a deep dive into the subject say it doesn’t exist.

If you had attended the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ international congress in London last week you could have been forgiven for coming away with the following thoughts. Addiction to Fortnite, the online game, is a real disorder; social media is depleting “our neurotransmitter deposits”; and “excess screen time has reduced our attention span to eight seconds, one less than that of a goldfish”.

Scary stuff! Only problem is, none of these claims is supported by facts or a drop of scientific evidence.

Some of those “reports” from the congress will wind up in news headlines and two-minute video segments, presented by commentators who “don’t know – or don’t care – that they are cherry-picking from an evidence base riddled with errors”. It sounds logical – and not a little scary – that screens are causing our kids to under-perform goldfish.

The research from the writers “focused on a sample of more than 10,000 preteens and teens, analysing1 nearly a decade of longitudinal data collected from British adolescents”.

And what did they find?

Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise. In the remainder, we did find some small trends over time – these were mostly clustered in data provided by teenage girls. Decreases in satisfaction with school, family, appearance and friends presaged increased social media use, andincreases in social media use preceded decreases in satisfaction with school, family, and friends. You can see then how, if you were determined to extract a story, you could cook up one about teenage girls and unhappiness.

But instead of seeing these results as disappointing – as they might be in a journalistic story sense – in science the lack of an expected finding is inherently valuable, making us reconsider, challenge and update our notion of how social media is affecting us.

By referring you to this article (and, in a post from last April, to a book whose author also makes the point that screen time is a poor indicator or child wellbeing) I’m not advocating for unlimited device use for anyone, much less kids.

As the authors note, there are “many good reasons to be sceptical1 of the role of Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in our society”. But the more important factor when it comes to the wellbeing of children is the quality of the time they spend with these and other online activities. And that’s where parents and teachers come in.

Don’t just count the number of minutes kids interacting with a screen. Look at what they are actually doing with those devices.

At the same time, you may want to reflect on whether the stuff you’re doing on that smartphone is a good use of your time.


The picture, one of my favorites, is from our trip to Cuba in 2016. Even in a country that severely restricts internet access, kids and adults still spend a lot of time on their screens.

1. Those are not typos, only British spellings of the word. You know, the original English language. :-)

School Is Hearing You

Schools, and many other businesses, are concerned with the possibility of violence in their buildings, justifiably in many areas. So, administrators are looking for new technologies that would allow them to spot trouble before it happens. Technologies that include AI-enhanced video and audio surveillance.

A new report from the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica1 says that there are many companies are only too happy to sell them systems which, they claim, can detect an incident in the making.

By deploying surveillance technology in public spaces like hallways and cafeterias, device makers and school officials hope to anticipate and prevent everything from mass shootings to underage smoking. Sound Intelligence also markets add-on packages to recognize the sounds of gunshots, car alarms and broken glass, while Hauppauge, New York-based Soter Technologies develops sensors that determine if students are vaping in the school bathroom. The Lockport school district in upstate New York is planning a facial-recognition system to identify intruders on campus.

The various systems rely on algorithms to sort out the various sounds and alert administrators when something matches particular patterns stored in the database. However, at least one system analyzed by ProPublica produced many false positives, while also recording and storing the audio collected by its microphones.

Yet ProPublica’s analysis, as well as the experiences of some U.S. schools and hospitals that have used Sound Intelligence’s aggression detector, suggest that it can be less than reliable. At the heart of the device is what the company calls a machine learning algorithm. Our research found that it tends to equate aggression with rough, strained noises in a relatively high pitch, like D’Anna’s [a student who worked with the reporters] coughing. A 1994 YouTube clip of abrasive-sounding comedian Gilbert Gottfried (“Is it hot in here or am I crazy?”) set off the detector, which analyzes sound but doesn’t take words or meaning into account. Although a Louroe spokesman said the detector doesn’t intrude on student privacy because it only captures sound patterns deemed aggressive, its microphones allow administrators to record, replay and store those snippets of conversation indefinitely.

As you might expect, surveillance technologies like this can often side effects, especially when used with young people in schools.

Dr. Nancy Rappaport, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies school safety, said the audio surveillance could have the unintended consequence of increasing student distrust and alienation. She added that schools are opting for inexpensive technological fixes over solutions that get to the root of the problem, such as more counseling for troubled kids. One Louroe microphone with aggression software sells for about $1,000.

Covering a school with microphones to spy on the kids is far cheaper than hiring qualified counselors who will actually interact with them.

Anyway, then there is the problem inherent with any kind of artificial intelligence: the underlying code that analyzes the data collected is written by human beings, and far too often incorporates their biases.

Researchers have also found that implementing algorithms in the real world can go astray because of incomplete or biased training data or incorrect framing of the problem. For example, an algorithm used to predict criminal recidivism made errors that disproportionately punished black defendants.2

There is much more detail in the the full report, including an explanation of how they tested the devices they purchased, along with audio and video of the students they enlisted to help. The whole thing is worth your time, especially if you teach in a school district that might be considering surveillance systems of any kind.

But I also wonder what students might think about this issue. About the idea of school administrators collecting and storing the sounds of their daily life. This report might make a wonderful jumping off point for discussion and further investigation in their community.


The image is one of the Sound Intelligence microphones purchased by ProPublica. It is intended to be installed on the ceiling, and the fact that it resembles a common smoke detector is probably not a coincidence.

1. For their wide-ranging investigations and reporting, ProPublica is well worth your financial support.

2. For much more about the problems with allowing algorithms to make decisions concerning people, I highly recommend the book “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil

Photo Post – Philadelphia Waterfront

Back in May, I was able to spend a beautiful day exploring the waterfront in Philadelphia on a Smithsonian Associates trip. Here are a few photos I made during our short time on and around the Delaware River. If you’re interested, more images from the day are in this gallery.

Philly Skyline

The skyline of Philadelphia as seen from the Delaware River.

Ship and Submarine

The Olympia, oldest steel warship still afloat to the right. The Becuna, a World War II era submarine to the left. As if you couldn’t tell them apart.

Torpedo Crew

Part of our tour group listening to the guide talk about the aft torpedo bay in the submarine Becuna.

SS United States

The SS United States, rusting away in the old Philly shipyards. In the 50’s, it was the fastest passenger ship making the crossing between England and the US. Would love to photograph on the ship itself.

Alexa at ISTE

picture of Alexa device

The ISTE mega conference ended it’s run for this year yesterday and, although I wasn’t able to go this year, I know from experience one of the first questions attendees will get when they get back to work: “What’s new?” Or “what was hot?”

One attendee that actually gets paid to hype the new and hot at ISTE is EdSurge, a cheerleader for the edtech industry. They seem to think that Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated AI system, is about to take off.

Four-and-a-half years after Amazon first released Alexa, its voice-activated virtual assistant, the technology is finding its footing in education.

Across the massive, brightly colored expo hall at ISTE 2019, the annual education technology conference where companies display and demo their latest gadgets, upgrades and software, several vendors showcased the new skills they have developed for Alexa-enabled devices.

I’m not sure three examples, one of which sounds more like a promotion for the ACT college testing program, could be considered any kind of trend towards creating a “footing” in education.

They also spoke with an educator who is very enthusiastic about the potential for Alexa as an instructional tool, despite the fact that Amazon itself has warned against using their devices in the classroom. She’s using something called Amazon Blueprints, “a website that allows users to build custom apps on the voice-enabled devices”, to create applications for her students to use.

Of course, the EdSurge writer doesn’t address the potential data privacy issues involved with having a device that records everything it hears in a classroom, other than to link to two other articles.

I also wonder whether having students interact with those “custom apps” is a good use of their time. At this point, Alexa’s “thinking” is a rather simplistic, yes-or-no, this-or-that kind of interaction, and the classroom applications I’ve read about (here and elsewhere) certainly reflect that.

As I’ve written about before, a better used for this kind of AI in the classroom would be to enable kids to investigate how Alexa works and programming it themselves.

Update: If you’re interested in digging deeper into the privacy and data issues surrounding Alexa and other AI devices in the classroom, the article “Voice Assistants in the Classroom: Useful Tool or Privacy Problem?” by Susan Bearden from last November has a lot of good information.


Hey, Alexa. Push the clock ahead a few hours so I can get outta here. :-)