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.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more with your assessment. I have not yet seen, Distance Learning programs used as 'adaptive learning' are inferior and inadequate. Just because it is sanctioned by government and gives a student credit doesn't mean he/she is learning anything. I think parents and kids and too many educators are being lulled into acceptance. The result will be the monopolization of these adapted online options by tech Ed companies who don't know or care about the students. 'Blended' programs, here skilled teachers can assess and adapt online activities with face to face instruction and discussion is far more personal. My issue is that innovation , whether Sir Ken notions or not, need a human professional educator not a multiple choice JavaScript screen. Economies of scale like Walmart don't apply honestly to comprehensive education.