Personalizing Learning

The Bill & Melinda Gates (Gates) Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) have recently initiated a joint effort to envision breakthroughs in education. While their dream is laudable and no doubt exciting, their Request for Information, it seems to me, looks backward rather than forward. Fortunately, it gives us another opportunity to talk about defining a new vision for problem solving in the digital age.

The RFI focuses on personalized learning and imagines:

There are promising field-developed approaches emerging that help teachers to address individual student needs by mirroring the same personalized approaches used by the best 1:1 tutors—especially when combined with expert, well-supported teachers in an active learning environment. Highly personalized learning experiences and tools have the potential to analyze student responses to understand barriers to student learning, provide immediate feedback, and apply immediate and effective remediation to students when needed.

Though they call for “active learning environment(s)” their view of technology and personalized learning looks to me more like an automated factory than a school of the future. An intelligent machine like an intelligent tutor, “analyze(s) student responses” then provides “effective feedback” and finally applies “remediation”. This description sounds as if we are to think of the student as a passive recipient of the machine’s intelligence, the machine learns and passes this learning onto the student. It is an all too common vision of the future of education, an automated version of 19th century educational perfection, Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and the student on the other. How does it help students become 21st century problem solvers? How does it enable them to think critically and creatively? How does it cause students to be active engaged learners who work in collaboration with other students on projects and problems in which they and not their machines determine whether they have made and learned something of value? How does it give students choice, the real power of personalization?

Technology, in every other walk of our lives, enables us to do old things more easily and competently; relieves the burden of tasks we no longer need perform; and makes possible things we have not before imagined. Technology, if it is to transform education, must enable students to more easily do old things like multiplying 3-digit numbers or solving equations. It should get rid of unneeded things like all the paper-based algorithms and practice students will never find useful. And it should enable students to work with the most powerful math concepts to find patterns and solve real world problems we never dreamed they could tackle before.

Envisioning technology that reinvents our schools not automates them should, I believe, be our goal and our dream for personalizing learning.