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Personalized Bait and Switch

Posted by on in Education Policy
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steam engine

Personalized Learning is getting the hard sell these days. It's marketable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that nobody really knows what Personalized Learning is.

What it suggests is something appealing, like Individualized Education Programs for everyone. Personalized Learning fans like to trot out exemplars like Chugach, Alaska, a remote, tiny town where a school system created a system in which each student had her own personal path to graduation, with projects, content, and assessment.

While there are plenty of problems with the Chugach thing, it's a good example of what most of us think Personalized Learning would mean. An educational program custom designed for each individual learner. Custom designed like a meal at a restaurant where you can choose the protein and spices and sauces and dishes and means of cooking and order exactly what you are hungry for.

But as Personalized Learning rolls out, that's not what it's like at all.

From the College Board's personalized SAT prep courtesy of Khan Academy, through bold plans like this IBM personalized education pitch is something else entirely. This is just path-switching.

The Brand X that we're supposed to be escaping, the view of education that Personalized Learning is supposed to alter, the toxin for which Personalized Learning is the alleged antidote is an education model in which all students get on the same car of the same train and ride the same tracks to the same destination at the same time. That's not what's actually going on in public schools these days, but let's set that aside for the moment.

Real personalized learning would tear up the tracks, park the train, offer every student a good pair of hiking shoes or maybe a four-wheeler, maybe even a hoverboard, plus a map of the territory (probably in the form of an actual teacher), then let the student pick a destination and a path and manner of traveling.

But techno-personalized learning keeps the track and the train. In the most basic version, we keep one train and one track and the "personalization" is that students get on at different station. Maybe they occasionally get to catch a helicopter that zips them ahead a couple of stops. (Think the old SRA reading program.)

Pat completes the first computer exercise in the module. An algorithm (cheerfully mis-identified as "artificial intelligence" because that sounds so super-cool) checks Pat's answers and the particular configuration of incorrect answers, by which the algorithm assigns the next exercise to Pat. Rinse and repeat. Pat is still on the train, but now there's a small web of tracks that he must travel. But Pat is still a passenger on this train, choosing no part of the journey, the destination, nor the means of travel.

That is in fact one of the key ways to identify whether you've got actual personalized learning or not -- how prominent is the voice of the student. If the pitch is "Our super-duper AI will analyze student performance and assign an appropriately awesome module to enhance learning swellness," this is not actual personalized learning, but Algorthmically Mediated Lessons (h/t Bill Fitzgerald) which is not personalized learning at all.

That's the bait and switch to watch out for. The promise is a hugely flexible and open-ended, even project-based, learning that is adapted to every individual learner. The delivery more often is the chance to pay big bucks for what is essentially a proprietary library of exercises managed by a proprietary software algorithm for doling the assignments out based on a battery of pre-made standardized tests and quizzes. That is not personalized learning. You cannot have personalized learning without persons. That includes persons making the decisions about hat the students do. That includes using knowledge of the person who is the student, and not handing out materials created by someone who has never met the students (and created the exercises before the student ever stepped into the classroom).

That impersonal education is not automatically terrible, and often has a place in education-- but it's not personalized learning.

And it's worth noting that the one train, one track model was abandoned by public education ages ago. Differentiated instruction, IEP's, authentic assessment, project-based learning, and a thousand other methods have been tried and adopted by classroom teachers who routinely work to meet students where they are and craft instruction to suit their personal needs. That's one of the great ironies of the bait and switch, the algorithmically mediated lessons - in the majority of US classrooms, when it comes to personalization, Faux Personalized Learning is actually a step backwards. The personalized bait-and-switch is about getting teachers to trade in their shiny hoverboards or rusty steam engines.

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Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher of secondary English for thirty-many years. He lives and works in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania where he plays ni a town band, works in community theater, and writes for the local paper.

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Guest Friday, 15 December 2017