Sunday, October 28, 2012

The myth of personalization

Much of the hype of 21st Century Learning centres around “personalization”. Academics such as the UK’s Ken Robinson lament that existing forms of schooling are restrictive and standardized - deadening children’s innate sense of curiosity. At the opening keynote of a recent education conference (ISTE 2012), he said:

“Humanity is essentially based on the principle of diversity. We are hugely different in our talents, our passions, our interests, our motivations, and our aspirations. The irony is, our education systems are predicated on compliance and conformity, not on creativity and diversity. I believe there are opportunities now, with new technologies as well--not only, but including new technologies-- to personalize education for every student in the system. Sometimes I hear people say, 'Well you can't personalize for everybody. We can't afford that.' But I say we can't afford not to.”

Personalization has a long history in the education field and encompasses a wide range of ideas including mastery learning, self-paced learning, and learning through multiple intelligences. It may involve student choice, student pacing, and even student selected learning objectives. However the term has been appropriated, particularly in the UK, to be more closely affiliated with computer mediated personalized learning. This causes considerable confusion in the 21st Century Learning world, as educators would likely provide a very different definition than technology companies.

The term was identified by David Miliband, then Minister of State for School Standards, in a well known speech in 2004 about UK education reform. The idea was further defined by British academic David Hargreaves who coined the nine gateways to personalized learning. But as the Alberta Teachers’ Association points out: “The close association of personalized learning and new technologies has been a central strand since the inception of the idea, and is part of the all-embracing creed of technocrats looking to enter system level educational reform. Of note is that David Hargreaves was a former chair of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which was the UK government’s main partner in the strategic development and delivery of its information and communications technology (ICT) and e-learning strategy.”

What does technology facilitated personalization look like? It is perhaps better described using the term adaptive learning, as it typically consists of a computer program which offers adapted learning pathways based on the student’s test outcomes. Students begin with a test or assessment and the computer then develops a pathway of lessons and future tests according to the student’s current abilities. More sophisticated models will also include different potential outcomes that the student may want to pursue. Nevertheless, to describe this as “personalized” is a misnomer. In any computer learning system, there are a fixed set of outcomes the program can teach, and there are a fixed set of potential pathways a student can traverse.

There are more sophisticated versions that incorporate questions and answers with peers, online discussion groups and other features designed to mimic an in-school experience.  Nevertheless, true personalization begins with the person, not with the tool.

The myth of personalization is used to make the 21st Century Learning model attractive to parents and children. What could be better than a school system designed to accommodate every child’s unique needs? Yet that level of personalization would take many resources and would not necessarily involve any technology. It would require smaller classes, more teachers and a greater range of educational programs in all schools. Adaptive technologies are not personalized learning. Adaptive and online education systems are used to scale instruction to large numbers of children, and although they may provide multiple pathways, they are by their preprogrammed nature restricted in scope.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Schools as charities

With funding cuts across North America, schools and school districts are turning to fundraising more and more as a source of income. There is a long history of parent committees raising funds for extra-curricular activities, but the type of fundraising now gaining traction goes beyond paying for some extras. Is public education gradually moving towards a charity rather than a public service? Here are a few of the fundraising developments taking place...

Some BC School Districts have put a "donate" page or button directly on their web sites. For example, here is the link to the Delta School District "Charitable Giving" page:

The District describes their program: "The Delta School District is a registered charitable trust through the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency. Although the Provincial Government provides funding for the district's core education programs and services, there are additional programs and services that greatly benefit from donor support! Donations received help us to deliver the best possible education to our 16,000 students."  Of note is that the donations are for "programs and services".

Langley School District has set up a Foundation: The web site indicates the type of items that are funded: 

"Funding Interests Include:
  • Literacy in all its forms
  • Enriched performing and visual arts initiatives
  • Special education programs and needs
  • Purchase library books and technology equipment
  • Developing learning enhancement projects"
They also describe the purpose of the Foundation, "The Foundation was established in May 2003 to enhance and enrich educational opportunities for 19,952 students in the Langley School District. We support the Langley School District in providing programs of excellence not funded by the Ministry."

In the US, charitable giving to schools has taken an even more aggressive and pervasive turn. The web site allows donations to hundreds of classrooms across the US. The site is supported by a variety of large corporations and private interests, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Disneyland, Facebook, Starbucks and Chevron, to name just a few. Donors can choose particular projects and types of schools, such as Charters. Donors can also choose which type of teacher they want to support, such as screening for only "Teach for America" teachers.

The irony is that while the web site claims to "ensure integrity" with an aim of "giving people a simple, accountable and personal way to address educational inequity", the entire project actually undermines the inequity they claim to want to address.

Only taxation and fair distribution of tax revenues can provide genuinely equitable funding for schools across communities. Any system of charity will be rife with inequity and also lack stability. It is simply no way to pay for schooling. It is tragic that public education is eroding to the point where such charity is so widespread. Now more than ever we need to reverse the trend by forcing our governments to provide full and stable funding through our taxes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Corporate ethics? A tale of two choices...

It is a disturbing juxtaposition: in the same week that Facebook refused to remove hundreds of bullying comments about teenager Amanda Todd, who recently took her own life, another Internet company, ServerBeach, shut down, with almost no notice, 1.4 million blogs of teachers and students due to a copyright infringement issue.

The Amanda Todd situation is tragic. A young woman took her life at least in part due to cyber-bullying. Even after her death, harassing comments and pictures continued to appear on Facebook. Those who reported these violations which were not removed received a message:

Thanks for your recent report of a potential violation on Facebook. After reviewing your report, we were not able to confirm that the specific page you reported violates Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

The reality is that the online harassment continues, and Facebook is failing to take action that could potentially prevent further harm to Amanda's family and other teens impacted by this cyber-bullying. (see:

In contrast, when Pearson discovered that a blog entry contained a few paragraphs (a set of 20 test questions) of a book published in 1974, the disabling of copyrighted content was swift and comprehensive. The blog owner had failed to pay Pearson the $120 licensing fee for using the content. Even though the content was removed from that blog, there was a "cached" version somewhere on the server (but it could not actually be viewed by anyone). Within 12 hours of receiving an automated warning message, was disabled by the hosting company ServerBeach, in response to complaints from Pearson. This had the effect of taking 1.4 million blogs offline - blogs mostly used by students and teachers during the school day. (see:

I don't believe corporations have any place in our schools, and this is a perfect case in point. Corporations have one primary interest - their own profits. When human interests compete, the playing field is not even. When corporations say they want to help students or help schools, we need to remember that they want that only so long as it is profitable for them. When interests collide, corporations will choose profits over people most of the time.

Textbook stunt no substitute for proper funding

In the latest bizarre policy measure by Premier Christy Clark, the BC government will provide free online textbooks for 40 post secondary courses.

It reminds me of the time they sent a book home to every household in BC with a child. I imagine this will be just about as effective at addressing debt for post secondary students as that stunt was for improving literacy rates and school readiness.

That the government would propose such a measly and inequitable policy shows a real lack of understanding about this issue. Post secondary education is no longer affordable for many students, particularly those from low income families.

This issue was described in a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

"...skyrocketing tuition fees do play a significant role in deciding whether or not to pursue a degree, particularly among students from low-income families. The extra costs (more than $5,000) associated with attending a university away from home tend to reduce enrolment among lower-income students who would have had to relocate to attend.

According to research from Statistics Canada, “slightly more than one half (50.2%) of youth from families in the top quartile of the income distribution attend university by age 19, compared to less than a third of youth from families in the bottom quartile (31.0%).” (

Sadly, BC is not alone in failing to address the equity issues that come with higher tuition fees - it is a pan-Canadian phenomenon. Tuition rates have risen far faster than inflation, putting many students in dire economic straights with heavy debt loads.

Similar forces are creeping into K - 12 schooling as well. One little noticed change to BC's school system this spring was a change to the School Act that allows Districts to charge fees for International Baccalaureate programs. Despite "hardship" policies, fees are a deterrent for low income families. This may impact hundreds of IB programs offered at schools across the province. It is in addition to fees already charged for specialty and Academy programs, as well as the significant fundraising parents do.

All public education programs, not just a few textbooks, should be tuition free and fully funded. This is the only way to provide equitable access to these programs.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Origins of the #bcedplan - Updated

Note: This blog entry was picked up by Tyee writer Katie Hyslop, who did an excellent story available here:

It is easy to think that we are immune here in Canada from the influence of the global "education reformers" who claim to want to improve schooling. What they really want is to reduce government expenditures, reduce public service delivery, reduce the levels of service publicly funded, and at the same time create a massive opportunity for private providers in the long sought after K-12 "market".

In fact, BC is a case study in how these ideas have been purposely propagated as part of a global strategy.

Take a look at GELP, otherwise knows as the Global Education Leaders' Program. If you are familiar with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council - a right wing organization that is propagating reactionary legislation through all the US states), GELP will look frighteningly familiar. It is a global group of "leaders" with a vision - transform public services so they do less with less, with private partners. Kind of like Charter schools or vouchers. Except with the appearance of making things better. More 21st century.

GELP describes themselves: "GELP is a community of system leaders, policy-makers and thought-leaders collaborating to transform education at local, national and international levels, to equip every learner with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the 21st century."

They acknowledge their "partners": Promethean, a "global education company that supports teaching and learning through integrated technology and training."; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Cicso Systems Inc; the Ellen Koshlan Family Fund; and Innovation Unit, a "not-for-profit social enterprise which supports innovation in public services."

One of GELP's "Jurisdictions" is none other than BC. There is a proud link to the bcedplan video here: And a little more digging finds a GELP case study report on, yes, you guessed it, the bcedplan. You can find the whole thing here (, but interestingly, the report identifies the origins of the plan:"At an international conference held in Vancouver in 2009, a team from the Ministry connected with Valerie Hannon, a director of Innovation Unit and a consultant in the Global Education Leaders’ Program (GELP). Her presentation, ‘Only Connect’, struck a chord with the BC Ministry and under the leadership of Gordon Campbell, then Premier in the Province, a series of high level meetings took place which resulted in a radical vision for transforming education in British Columbia."

So what is Hannon's view of a "radical vision"? Some insight can be found in a paper she co-authored for Cisco Systems. In "Developing an Innovation Ecosystem for Education", the radical vision is described clearly: "how to design public services that deliver different and better outcomes at a lower cost." (page 7)  This is done through "radical efficiencies", such as "a reduction in the number of interventions made by professionals", "decommissioning of space", "looking to alternative providers", and having "users of services frequently assume a more active role in their delivery, which serves to enhance the benefits of the service for these and other users and to reduce the costs of provision".

And how will the bceplan do less for less with this radical vision? Well, just one example is special education - perhaps one of the most expensive areas of our current school system. This process began back in 2002 with the elimination of targeted funding for most students with special needs. It has progressed through the decade with the elimination of class composition rules (placing a limit on the number of students with special needs in any one class to ensure integration not segregation, as well as adequate teacher time) and the loss of over 700 special education teachers.

But here is how GELP's case study describes the "next wave of reform": "Decategorisation of special needs education. In the words of Rod Allen, there will be 'no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is.'”

It is not surprising that Gordon Campbell was struck with Valerie Hannon's ideas. The past decade has been all about the same type of "savings" she describes. As the BC Education Coalition pointed out back in 2010, these "savings" took place even before the Ministry was in love with Hannon's ideas:

Between 2000/01 and 2009/10, the Education Ministry reports that BC has seen a net loss of 148 schools ("decommisioning of space")

Net loss since 2001-02 of public school teachers: 9% ("reduction in the number of interventions made by professionals")

Students with Special Needs: grad rates for most districts have declined in recent years, some by double digits (perhaps a consequence of an unrealistic expectation that "users of services" will be able to "assume a more active role in their delivery" because we apparently no longer need "labels" or a "medical model" for students with disabilities)

(Note: I wrote a related blog post a year ago...different company, same message: