The problem with high-tech ‘personalized’ learning tools

SWSXedu was a big hit in Texas last week, where technology companies (such as Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify Education) hawked their new education gadgets that they promised would help kids learning by providing “individualized” instruction. Really? Here’s a skeptical view on that notion from educator Sabrina Joy Stevens, who attended SWSXedu and came away disturbed. Stevens is a teacher-turned-education activist based in Washington, DC. She currently works at the American Federation of Teachers.

By Sabrina Joy Stevens

I’ve been blessed with many great learning experiences, but one of my favorites involved the first time I read “Little Women.”

Towards the end of third grade, our class was saying goodbye to our much-loved student teacher. As part of our good byes, Miss P gave each of us a small gift. I can still remember how warmly and genuinely she smiled as she handed me a small copy of the classic book. “I know it’s pretty old,” she said, “but I really think you’ll like it. Especially Jo.”

An avid reader, I was excited and grateful. Over the next few days, as I raced through the pages and discovered that– yes, I really did like this book, and especially Jo—I remember feeling even more warm, fuzzy and grateful. I felt really special, knowing that she “knew” me enough to know how much I’d enjoy this. What was a small act for her made me feel seen and understood. I felt like I mattered.

To me, that’s personalized learning—when a person sees and recognizes in another person (or in him- or herself) what’s needed to keep learning and growing. Personalized learning occurs when a teacher and a learner know and respect each other enough to interact in meaningful ways, and when a learner begins to know herself well enough to know the next step she should take to master a new skill, or the next step on her path to becoming who she wants to be.

That’s why I couldn’t help feeling a bit disturbed at SXSWedu last week, hearing tech vendors and venture capitalists use the term “personalized learning” as though it was 1) new (what, exactly, do these people think has been going on in human brains for millennia??) and 2) a ground-breaking thing that could only be enabled through their proprietary technology.

Language-check: what many of these people are selling as “personalized” learning is actually digitized standardized learning. Creating tools and products that offer digital ways to deliver drill-and-kill instruction is not revolutionary. Attaching that to a large bank of flawed, standardized data merely automates and speeds the process of selecting those drill-and-kill activities and marketing more of them to teachers, students and parents. But making it easier to do more of a problematic thing does not make that thing less problematic.

What’s more, one of the few explicit justifications I heard for all of this, after questioning how, exactly, this was different than anything teachers and schools had done in the past (a past many educators are trying to run from, in favor of more participatory and empowering alternatives), was that it helped teachers manage growing class sizes, and helped everyone more easily manage the abundance of data we now have. In other words, the primary value of these tools is to help us adapt to teacher unemployment, student overcrowding, and student over-testing.

I don’t believe in adapting to dysfunctional or outright bad situations, and I hope I’m not alone in this. I believe in doing the tough work necessary to actually solve root problems, not find new ways to deal with their painful symptoms. We know from experience that adapting to problems instead of solving them only makes them worse. And I don’t think cash-strapped school districts should be paying to make their problems worse.

Now, that’s not to say that all of the new tools and apps I encountered were bad. I saw quite a few things that might be very helpful. In particular, the apps and platforms that empower teachers and students to make things, that facilitate collaboration within and across classrooms, and that help learners master distinctly 21st Century skills like coding, looked very worthwhile.

As school districts consider which new tools to adopt, the whole school community should be involved in the process of trying them out, seeing what’s empowering and what isn’t, and deciding together what they should invest in, as well as what the boundaries around student and teacher information should be.

What’s more, we should avoid succumbing to the hype surrounding these products without fully considering the implications of investing our money into them—especially if that investment comes at the expense of investing in the people and professional development that true personalized learning requires. Tech is revolutionary (in a positive way) when it empowers us to do even better what we already do well. But if we’re using tech to compensate for fewer people, we’re not replacing anything—we’re losing something.

True personalized learning comes from people knowing each other; man-made interventions can facilitate, but not fully replace, the cognitive or emotional value of meaningful in-person interaction.

And thinking beyond the school walls, we also need to consider the community’s overall well being, and whether it serves the whole community’s best interests to invest in products made by faraway corporations instead of its local people.

Teachers and other school personnel are also local consumers and tax payers who contribute to the community’s social and economic well-being through their work as well as through spending their income. In doing so, they boost local economies by supporting local business owners and workers, and they pay into the tax base that supports the people who keep all of us—regardless of our background or ability to pay—safe, healthy and educated.

Products don’t provide these additional benefits. Unless they happen to be locally based to a given community, the companies that make them don’t necessarily pay local taxes, and larger corporations often dodge as many state and federal taxes as they can, eroding the commons that sustains the rest of us.

Remember: schools are part of a community ecosystem. We have the right and responsibility to ensure public officials don’t replace the symbiotic relationships that school employees have within the community, with potentially parasitic relationships with faraway companies who would take from our public coffers without necessarily putting enough back in.

A true commitment to personalized learning requires a renewed appreciation of the persons who make it possible. Tech is great, but let’s get real: no app ever painted a classroom, or hand-sewed pillows so its students could have cozy places to learn to love reading. No smart board ever improvised a harmony with its student’s rising voice, teaching a new skill and inspiring a new song in the process. And no computer ever offered a warm smile or embrace to comfort a traumatized child, or food to a child without enough to eat. Teachers and other school employees do all of these things and more. We should be finding ways to keep them where they can protect, nurture and teach students, not finding ways to get away with fewer and fewer of them.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 13, 2013