Don’t Call This Personal Learning

Once upon a time, like around three years ago, one of the hottest concepts in education reform was a collection of “micro schools”, called AltSchool. The brain child of a former Google executive, AltSchool mixed concepts from Montessori and other progressive educators with data-driven technology to produce a startup that attracted hundreds of millions in venture capital. 

Today, not so much. AltSchool is now “pivoting” from operating a few expensive boutique private schools to marketing software for “personalizing” learning in regular public schools.

So, what magic is AltSchool selling in their algorithms?

The software allows educators to build curriculum, tailor assignments, set goals, offer feedback, and track a host of metrics from learners. Students using the platform can create customized “playlist” of assignments and monitor their progress with the hope that their learning will become self-directed.

In other words, this one-time darling of Silicon Valley is marketing a more advanced, maybe even more intelligent, version of the teaching machines we were promised in the 50’s. And the programmed learning software schools overpaid for in the 90’s.

Call this personalized learning if you like. Maybe individualized instruction. But this approach, where every part of the learning process is mapped out by adults, is in no way personal.

I’m repeating myself but it’s worth restating…

Personalized learning is something done TO students. Personal learning is something students do for themselves.

One can be automated, the other is uniquely individual.

Personalizing Students

The US Secretary of Education believes “personalized” learning is the future of schools.

At least she does based on the observational “snapshots” she’s collected in the past couple of years.

What I have observed and also read from others who are more deeply immersed in this, is that students that are in that setting are able to really pursue their learning and take charge and control of their own learning and to proceed at a rate that works for them.

I am optimistic that the places where this customized, personalized approach has been tested and shown to be successful for students, that there is going to be a broader embrace of it.

Those snapshots are more than enough evidence to create policy, right?

The vision of “personalized” learning on which DeVos is heaping praise comes largely from high-profile experiments funded by Silicon Valley billionaires, like the Summit program, largely backed by Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation, and Alt Schools, created by a former Google executive. All of these programs depend heavily on software to customize the educational program for each student, collecting a lot of data on each child along the way.

That educational program, however, is far from personal.

In most of these high tech schools, the curriculum and how it is presented is still determined by adults. Students may get to choose from a short menu of activities at each stage of the lessons, they have little to no choice in the topics they will study. Their data is used to “improve” the algorithms but their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are largely ignored.

Just like most “normal” schools.

But in the past few months, these techie education “experts” have been finding that personalizing the learning process is not as simple as they thought. Alt School has closed many of their boutique schools and some of their parents and educators are having second thoughts. Last year, sales of the Summit system to public districts was much slower than the company forecast.

Of course, “personalized” learning is the hot buzz term for hundreds of edtech companies at the moment and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But, as responsible educators, we need to question the meaning of the word and how software vendors are applying it. Not to mention how their systems and algorithms are using data collected from students.

Because “personalized” (or “individualized”) is not the same as personal learning. The kind where students work with teachers and their peers to explore their interests and skills, as well as understanding the basic knowledge they will need as adults.

And are a fundamental part of planning their own learning process, not simply responding to software and curriculum designed by hired experts.

Teaching by Algorithm

A BBC video starts by asking “Could computer algorithms upgrade education?”. It just gets worse from there.

It’s a profile of the Alt Schools, a small chain of private schools based in San Francisco, funded by tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg. They also ask if this is the school of the future… and I certainly hope not.

I love the part where the CEO is giving the camera a tour of the company offices and notes that “almost everyone down there on the floor is a programmer”, and then, over there in the back, you have the educators. Plus the marketing and design people.

It’s pretty clear from that tour and this whole profile that the philosophy behind Alt School is very much driven by coding and data. They are using all this data (collected from largely rich, white kids based on the school in the video) to train their algorithms, with the goal to automate the teaching process. Something that makes the video’s note about the diminishing influence of teachers leading to a decline in good people entering the profession even more likely.

Or am I being paranoid?

Certainly teaching in a school where everything is recorded and deposited into a computer is pretty creepy. But is “hyper-personalized” instruction, driven by massive amounts of data and delivered by screen, really the future of learning? Or is it just the future for kids whose districts have the money to buy into this kind of marketing?

Watch the video. The New Yorker and Wired Magazine offer more details in their stories about this concept.

The New Business of School

In case you haven’t heard, Silicon Valley is getting into the disrupting education business. Several tech entrepreneurs, including Salman Khan himself, are creating schools with the ultimate end goal of earning big profits from learning.

A recent segment of the podcast Note to Self visited the Brooklyn location of one called AltSchool, founded by a former Google executive and backed by $100 million from folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreesen. The goal of the company is to “optimize” education by build a “new operating system” for schools, one that seems to lean very heavily on the concept of “personalized” learning.

The descriptions and interviews from the program makes the instructional process sound great, and likely wonderful for the kids involved. But in effect they are guinea pigs, contributing data so the company can take what they learn from these ten or so small elementary and middle schools and scale it up into marketable products that could be used in most “regular” public and charter schools. Plus make projetsons teacherfits worthy of a hundred million dollar investment, of course.

I have many doubts about these experimental schools, but especially about the scaling part.

To start, the kids attending these “micro-schools” come from families that can afford to pay the up-to $30,000 tuition, or qualify for a grant. Public schools spend far less per student, and few parents could afford that kind of money for private. And we already know that small classes (30 to 120 students per AltSchool) with highly motivated students, and parents, led by a well-qualified staff almost always leads to better learning.

But what happens when they try to take the same concepts and put them in a public elementary school with 25 not-specially-selected kids per teacher? As the number of adult-kid interactions decline in the classroom setting and the software they are building (based on collecting lots of data, something else that should raise a few red flags) takes over, the experiences will also change. It’s likely test scores, not to mention student engagement, will decline noticeably.

Go listen to the whole thing and see if you hear something different. You may also want to read this profile of the company and it’s founder in Wired.

However, for now, I have many, many questions – and doubts – about this and other “high tech school” startups, siding with this view from the podcast.

NPR’s education reporter Anya Kamanetz is skeptical of Ventilla’s goal to optimize education for the masses, and she’s concerned about Silicon Valley’s foray into education. “They have a giant promise, which is that the right software system, the right operating system, is going to transform teaching and learning… and, what it ultimately means is that they have shareholders to satisfy.”

Transforming teaching and learning is not necessary compatible with making profits large enough to satisfy those shareholders. Nor should it be.