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NEA News

Has the Personalized Learning Hype Worn Off?

The tech-infused version is under increased scrutiny. "Public school educators do not need businessmen to tell them how to educate, nurture, and innovate."
Published: August 19, 2019

Many, if not most, public school educators recognize the pattern. A new education buzzword or trend enters the conversation about public education. Proponents say it is nothing less than a "game-changer" that will "revolutionize" student learning. The hype surrounding this new idea is usually borderline messianic, but is backed by enormous amounts of corporate money. Anyone who raises the slightest objection or reservation is often branded a stuffy defender of the status quo.

The idea is embedded in a few school districts and steadily begins to expand. Within a year or two, it's clear that - oops! -  the promised positive results have yet to materialize. A backlash grows. By this point, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, time and resources have been wasted, and proven ideas about what really works in the classroom have been marginalized.

Sound familiar? The U.S. public education system has been squeezed by a series of half-baked innovations or "reforms" over the past couple of decades, driven by a "failing schools/bad teacher" narrative. The tireless activism of educators and their allies has, to certain extent, stalled the momentum behind many of these policies, including for-profit charter schools, vouchers, and high-stakes testing.

The latest education trend to find itself in the hot seat is personalized learning.

By now, most educators have heard of personalized learning.  Many have implemented some version of it in their classrooms. No one seems to agree precisely on what personalized learning means and what it entails, beyond a general consensus that it involves tailoring instruction and curriculum to individual students' needs.

This general idea is hardly new and, behind it all the recent hype and noise, personalized learning can be appealing, says Faith Boninger of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).

"Many educators are attracted to and enthusiastic about the child-oriented promises held out by various approaches to personalized learning," explains Boninger. "This is children having more freedom to pursue their own interests and teachers having more time to mentor children individually, to develop a strong relationship with each child and provide each one what he or she needs at any given time."

So far, so good. But the modern version of personalized learning is tightly hitched to digital technology and data - and the outsized and powerful for-profit corporate interests behind it.

Or as Peter Greene succinctly put it: "Personalized learning smells like money. Lots of money."

Faulty Assumptions

Boninger, along with Alex Molinar and Christopher Saldaña, examines the alarming direction personalized learning has taken in a new study. The researchers raise red flags that should alarm anyone anxious about the nexus of digital technology, corporate privatization, powerful backers such as Betsy DeVos and Charles Koch, and the lack of oversight that has allowed personalized learning to proliferate in school districts across the country.

Marketed aggressively to districts by tech companies, many programs have been designed around several "false assumptions" about teaching and learning that are central to the agenda advanced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Tech-infused personalized learning is "so carefully and forcefully marketed as satisfying the needs of both children and educators, it sounds like a perfect solution to everyone's problems."- Faith Boninger, National Eduction Policy Center

This vision of personalized learning extols continual assessment, record-keeping, and feedback that rely on a steady and endless stream of quantitative data. Perhaps more than any other factor, the resulting concern over threats to student privacy, has undermined personalize learning's popularity.

And, as Boninger, Molinar and Saldaña write in the NEPC report, the central assumption behind these programs "narrows pedagogical practices and curriculum because they must be limited to elements that can be both logically structured and measured making them, not coincidentally, technology friendly."

Once a district buys into this premise, tech companies may appropriate an even greater space in it schools than they had before.

Cynthia Roy, a teacher in Taunton, Mass. says districts are being made “irresistible offers.”

"It is difficult for schools with tight budgets to turn away technology. Even if we are growing skeptical of the bright and shiny offers pitched by ed tech companies, many of us are still desperate enough to accept them," Roy explains.

In addition, says Boninger, district leaders often lack the time and expertise to properly evaluate what they're being sold. "When they’re told that a product will adaptively respond to children’s specific needs, for example, how are they supposed to determine if that’s really true?"

Hyper-Individualized, Industrialized Learning Environment

The research into personalized learning is thin at best. What is available shows little or no substantive improvement in student learning. In January, ChalkBeat reported that Summit Learning, the online platform funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, turned down an offer by the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research to evaluate its program.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls personalized learning "one of the most promising developments in K-12 education."(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A team of educators in East Pennsboro, Pa., avoided some of these pitfalls by ensuring that personalize learning was done by them, not to them. Profiled by NEA Today in 2017, the teachers were leaders in both the design and implementation of the program, opting for a hybrid blended learning model that merged technology with project learning - all without relinquishing their role in the classroom.

That wasn't Paul Emerich's experience at a private school in Silicon Valley. The educator was initially excited about going deep in a tech-centric personalized learning environment. Emerich quickly became disillusioned by what he called a stressful and isolating (for both teacher and student), "hyper-individualized, industrialized" learning environment fueled by "big data and a playlist."

The company behind the schools didn't have the research or the evidence to support its approach, Emerich wrote on his blog, and student results were no better, if not worse, than results at the public school he taught at previously.

"Their primary concern was not the children’s education: their primary concern was monetizing the tools....Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own."

Emerich details his experiences and lays out his vision for personalized learning in a new book, "Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Pedagogy for Restoring Equity and Humanity in Our Classroom."

'Teachers Don't Need Apps For This'

Sensing a looming backlash, a couple of companies in 2018 issued a document calling for a personalized learning message makeover. The document instructs like-minded stakeholders to tone down the hyperbole about technology, data, and increased "student agency," (parents are increasingly nervous about all three) and talk more about how great these programs are for teachers.

"In an effort to generate excitement, we inadvertently scared the public," the report said.

This should also sound familiar. School privatization advocates have tried to rebrand school vouchers and other schemes to make them more palatable to a skeptical public. As with these initiatives, the problems facing personalized learning need much more than a PR reboot.

personalized learning Many educators, while supporting the general idea behind personalized learning, believe tech companies have essentially hijacked the concept. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The NEPC report recommends that policymakers and schools take a step back from promoting and implementing these programs "until rigorous review, oversight, and enforcement mechanisms are established."

The authors also call on states to establish independent entities to establish safeguards to protect student and teacher data, review curriculum and pedagogical approaches, and open all assessment instruments and algorithms associated with personalized learning materials to review by third-party education experts.

While the heightened scrutiny in into these programs is welcome and long overdue, interest in personalized learning remains high.

The problem, says Boninger, is that tech-infused personalized learning is "so carefully and forcefully marketed as satisfying the needs of both children and educators, it sounds like a perfect solution to everyone's problems."

Resisting that sales pitch when you’re under considerable pressure to avoid being perceived as failing or resistant to change can be difficult.

"We can transform the public education system so that no district is desperate and vulnerable to these schemes," says Cynthia Roy. "Fully funding our schools is one answer. Another would be to resist narratives of incompetent educators and failing public schools."

Teachers know what they are doing and welcome innovation in the classroom, she adds.

"Professional educators are fully capable of merging knowledge domains - technology, content, and pedagogy," says Roy. "They know how to differentiate instruction to truly personalize learning. Our public school teachers do not need apps for this. They do not need businessmen to tell them how to educate, nurture, and innovate,' 

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.