Personalization is Killing Pedagogy

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I recently saw a CNN report that was inquiring whether personalized learning was the future of education. The idea was based on a $133 million school startup known as AltSchool. This inquiry was actually a legitimate concern identified by former Google executive, Max Ventilla. The ambition to make the learning experience more personal is a difficult one to argue against. However, as more and more schools adopt this philosophy, a multi-billion dollar industry is emerging. The question is that in its attempt to systemize this approach, is it ironically in danger of depersonalizing the learning experience of students more than ever?

Again, it seems harmless, but the reality of how it would be implemented in schools is questionable. For example, there are aspects of the AltSchool program that are impressive (flexible schedule, commitment to physical education and innovation), but the reported approach to learning sounds anything but personal.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the original concept of developing greater student agency — a complex task — is being lost in attempts by well-intentioned schools to provide this opportunity in a manageable manner which is, in turn, being capitalized upon by the “education reform” industry. These canned approaches move us further and further away from the objective of making learning personal.

Even so, some educational publishers are beginning to standardize personalization. The desire for technology integration and data analytics (two worthy things given the right context ) have combined to form a conveyor belt approach to learning. It works like this: the software indicates that you have “mastered” X; the student can move to Y. In this way, technology investment is justified and data is recorded in visually appealing ways. This is not learning and it is not personal.

In his new book, Eric Sheninger points out that “pedagogy always trumps technology.” There can be no argument with this perspective. “For digital learning to be implemented effectively,” Sheninger contends, “[we must] focus on pedagogy first.”

Therefore, our insistence that we are doing our best to provide “personal” learning stems from a conviction that the learner comes first, that the skilled teacher is more critical than ever, and that technology and data can amplify this philosophy when approached in the correct context.

If personalized learning means that students are required to move through a series of data points in some software program, then I hope schools will avoid this movement at all costs. Learning should be personal. The best learning has always been personal. It requires relationships and collaboration, individuality and personal rapport.

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