You’ve Been Personalized

When it comes to anything dealing with education reform and technology, who is the first person you want to talk to? Bill Gates, of course. A billionaire is the all-purpose expert on everything.

And so The Verge went to that source of all knowledge for a short interview following Gates’ keynote address to the ASU GSV Summit, something the New York Times calls “The Must-Attend Event for Education Technology Investors” (according to the headline quote on the event website). Considering other featured speakers included Condoleezza Rice, Guy Kawasaki, and Common, the focus was probably far more on investors than education.

Anyway, there’s not much substance in the discussion with Gates, especially as it relates to the title of the piece: “Can AI fix education?”. But the thread that caught my attention has to do with his perception of “personalized learning”, starting with the fact that he’s not even sure what it is.

Well the term “personalized learning” doesn’t have an exact definition. In general, the idea is that people progress at a different rate. If you’re ahead of what’s being taught in the class, that’s not good, you get bored. If you’re behind, then they’re using terms and concepts that create a general impression of “Hey, I’m not good at this.”

And the idea of personalized learning is you always know yourself where you are on a topic, that you have the sense of what the tasks are, how much there’s left to do to achieve certain levels. So there is more personal agency.

However, it’s the writer himself who summarizes all that’s wrong with this concept of “personalized learning” in one sentence from his introduction to the interview.

It’s a diffuse set of initiatives, led mostly by private companies, to develop software that creates individual lesson plans for students based on their performance, coaching them through trouble spots until they have mastered the subject at hand.

The concept of “personalized” learning shared by Gates and many of the edtech entrepreneurs listening to him at this conference, is of a mechanical process that is done to the students. Learning that is organized and programmed for them, with no input from the child, other than the data collected based on responses to tasks on the screen. Everything is about “performance”.

There is really very little about the learning process described by Gates and his interviewer that is “personal” at all. Certainly no one will ask the student about their interests, aspirations or skills, much less incorporate them into those “individual lesson plans”. And true personal learning doesn’t exist without total involvement of the person.

By the way, Will Richardson has a good take on that part about Gates’ approach to that phrase “personal agency”. Go read it.

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