With the support of a large and wealthy nonprofits, Personalized Learning has been a popular educational trend in the last two decades. Backed by all this funding, it may come as a surprise that studies into Personalized Learning practices have shown mediocre results.
Why, then, is so much money being poured into this innovation? And, more importantly, is there a better way to help students learn?
What is Personalized Learning?
Simply, personalized learning is a curriculum plan and educational mentality that customizes the learning experience for each student. Everything from the content (does a student retain better if they read an essay or watch a video?), to the teachers approach (hands on versus distant), and even the objectives (how students are evaluated) are tailored to meet individual needs.
For a more in depth explanation, I suggest this article from the Office of Ed Tech.
But a better question might be; what SHOULD personalized learning be?
Because learning ought to be focused on a child’s needs and interests is a no-brainer. We can sense that learning is enhanced when the student has agency in their own education. But how that learning is personalized to the student is the big question for educators and the nonprofit organization who aim to fund structural changes in our education system.
Profit in the Classroom
Searching the web for information about the growth in personalized learning will invariable lead you to reading the National Education Policy Center report from earlier this year—Personalized Learning and the Digital Privatization of Curriculum and Teaching. The report focuses on the ways personalized learning is implemented and what the technology behind personalization means for the future of learning.
Peter Greene, in a piece for Forbes, sums up the argument that stands at the center of this report: “personalized learning has been essentially taken over by a privatized corporate approach, because personalized learning smells like money. Lots of money.” The issue Greene sees is that the funding, in this case largely from the coffers of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, instructs a technologically driven learning revolution.
And while that idea has merit, any time technology is viewed as a solution in and of itself, profit becomes a driving factor. As with most things, when the profit becomes involved, the goals naturally shift. But in this instance, the damage done to shifting goals could impact an entire generation of students.
What Students Need
The bottom line for personalizing education is to serve the students better. To find ways to customize the learning experience so students get the most out of their time in the classroom. If the lukewarm results from data driven, technologically powered personalized learning tell us anything, it’s that data means less than the presence of a teacher.
That’s the thing most glaringly missing from personalized learning; the direct and immediate input from the teachers in the classrooms. Data will only find the solution that works for the majority of users (in this case students) the majority of the time. That’s simply not good enough when it comes to education.
What is the solution? I’m not here with any kind of grand idea that will solve these problems. In fact, I’m not nearly qualified to suggest solutions to a problem this large and vital.
I can say that, since Glasstree began and for years before that with Lulu, educators have been (independently) creating personalized learning. Not with laser focused tools that show a student exactly what that individual student needs (based on what an algorithm says that student needs), but with custom workbooks, compilations of reading materials, and textbooks built around the curriculum.
Students need to learn at their own pace and in their own ways, but there is also value in learning to understand others. Personalization, to varying degrees, may limit the important critical thinking skills we are meant to learn in school. Imagine a world in which students who struggled with Shakespeare could simply have the text “modernized?” The entire purpose behind teaching Shakespeare is rooted in the profoundly brilliant way he crafted prose.
Technology Should Serve, Not Be Served
When personalized learning programs become data vacuums, the students are at risk of being poorly served. The methods by which these programs may be engaging, but if the student doesn’t retain more information or score higher on tests, how are we to judge the program effective? We can’t, of course, just as the NECP report highlights. The goal then should be to find ways educators can serve knowledge and challenge students to think critically, without shifting the relationship to focus on the tools they use. As McLuhan said so many years ago, “the medium is the message.” Educators and those who would fund the development of better education systems must see past the medium to the students who desperately need to hear, see, experience, and understand the message.