The promise of digitally-enabled personalized learning dates back to the 1960s. As with many early predictions, it took decades before the potential began to be realized. For the first time we are seeing personalized learning being adopted as a strategy by schools and districts, the results of research and lessons emerging, and the actual software maturing enough to be interesting (I use that word intentionally because there are way too many solutions claiming to offer personalized learning, that just don’t cut it).
We should be jumping for joy, right, for the related benefits are at hand: students having control over their own learning; differentiated instruction; real-time feedback for each learner; and teachers having more time to spend on teaching?
But while the benefits sounds ideal for education, personalized learning has its critics. Beyond that, it’s really hard to get right and we’re still not “there”. In 2012, the K-12 Horizon Report put Personal Learning Environments on the four to five year horizon, by 2016 the report described Personalizing Learning as one of the “wicked challenges: those that are complex to even define, much less address”.
The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning
Education Week has recently published a series of articles in a special report Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality. Since our default techie position is one of open arms to this vision, the best article with which to start is The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning, which offers three broad criticisms of the movement.
What Does the Evidence Tell Us?
Concerning the evidence for personalized learning, a 2015 RAND study showed large gains from the practice. But a Brookings Institute blog post describes how more recent research of personalized learning implemented at scale shows modest achievement gains and identifies implementation challenges. The article offers insightful views into what could be the cause of this (including that radical change often has an initial negative effect — but more on that in a future post.)
Let’s Do This Thing
Also from Education Week, lessons from three schools reveal three common challenges around personalized learning implementations: ensuring teachers are trained enough for a new way of teaching; differentiating instruction in a standards-based world; and ensuring students who are now allowed to work at their own pace, keep the pace. The lessons are useful for those wanting to implement personalized learning.
Now it’s too personal
The more personalized software knows about you, the better it can work its magic. The balance between having the system collect data about students while protecting their privacy is the grand challenge of our time. While not specifically concerned with personalized learning, the New York Times article about Google in the classroom is an excellent case study of this tension.
What about ICT4D in general?
While these articles focus on education, the principles of personalized learning and, more broadly, personalized usage, are important for all of us. Increasingly the data available can drive targeted user experiences and track user development. What does that mean for the future of mHealth SMS broadcasts, or agricultural extension support? Instead of taking assessments to demonstrate learning levels, what if behaviour change, recorded digitally, marks learning in practice and drives appropriate information and services? We should always be thinking of our target audience not as users, but learners.
Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank