It’s Not Personal

Following up on the previous rant

If you dig deep into those expensive plans to “fix” schools, almost all have two things in common: a heavy emphasis on the magic of technology, and the promise of “personalized learning”.

Except that latter promise is a whole lot of marketing. And not at all new.

A good example is the recently-failed Summit Learning initiative from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation.

Summit also featured 16 hours a week of “personalized learning time.” Students worked at their own pace on a computer, which fed them a “playlist” of content where they learned specific skills. Students could move on once they got eight of 10 questions right on an online quiz.

That seemed to be the biggest draw for Zuckerberg, who contrasted the approach to “having every student sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher explain the same material at the same pace in the same way.” He suggested this could lead to transformational improvements in student learning. The goal, he wrote in 2017, was “scaling this approach to every classroom.” 

That idea of having kids sit in front of algorithmically controlled drill-and-practice software has a long history.1

Flashing back into the previous century, around 1998, I vividly remember working with the principal at an elementary school who decided to sink a lot of her discretionary funds (plus generous contributions from the PTA) into a system called SuccessMaker.

It came with dozens of CD that had to be swapped in and out, and focused exclusively on reading and math. As you might expect in the wake of the disaster called No Child Left Behind.

The software presented the students with activities wrapped with animated characters and, based on the child’s response, moved them through the lessons. The developer recommended that students should spend 20 minutes a day on their system. I remember clearly a trainer from the company promising teachers they would see tremendous improvement in test scores very quickly. And that students would be highly motivated to learn because they like using technology.

However, then as now, nothing about “personalized learning” is personal.

Personalized learning is something that is imposed on a student.

Someone else determines what will be studied and how learning success will be measured. The learner is manipulated through the process by an unseen algorithm. The one and only goal is to boost tests scores. 

Learning that is personal, on the other hand, is something a person does for themselves. Working to learn relevant ideas and information that is based on their interests, skills, and needs. And that kind of learning is most often a social process.

Which “personalized” learning most certainly is not.

With the current mania over artificial intelligence, watch for even more vendors trying to sell schools products that are “personalized”.

But remember, that it’s not personal.


Back in the 90’s, the “personalized” SuccessMaker system ran on one of these hulking all-in-one Macs. It was a whole lot of fun pulling these things out of their box and setting them up.

1. The concept actually got its start way before I encountered it. If you want far more details, I highly recommend Audrey Watters’ interesting, entertaining book “Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning”.

1 Comments It’s Not Personal

  1. Jim Randolph

    I may read that book but it might be too depressing. This sounds like half of what the kids are doing here. Programs like iReady and others every single day. Ugh.

    Reply

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