It seems like there has been an avalanche of high-profile books about the future of education lately—Kevin Carey’s The End of College, Jeff Selingo’s College Unbound, Anya Kamenetz’s The Test, Michael Crow’s Designing the New American University, and Fareed Zacharia’s In Defense of a Liberal Education, to name a few. The fact that so many of these books are being written now by high-profile authors and are getting so much attention indicates that there is a sense in the public consciousness that we may be at some sort of inflection point. But it’s possible to read a bunch of these books—whatever their virtues may be—and still have only a cloudy notion of what is actually happening on the ground in classrooms right now, for several reasons. First, many of these books are written by non-educators. Second, it’s hard to paint a complete picture while also marshalling examples to support a thesis about tectonic cultural change. But maybe most importantly, it’s just hard to convey a visceral sense of what’s going on in the day-to-day educational lives of teachers and students with the written word.
Which is one reason why we’re pretty excited about the release of the first two case studies in our new e-Literate TV series on the trend of so-called “personalized learning.” We see the series as primarily an exercise in journalism. We tried not to hold onto any hypothesis too tightly going in, and we committed to reporting on whatever we found, good or bad. We did look for schools that were being thoughtful about what they were trying to do and worked with them cooperatively, so it was not the kind of journalism that was likely to result in an exposé. We went in search of the current state of the art as practiced in real classrooms, whatever that turned out to be and however well it is working.
These first case studies set the tone for the series. One is on Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and the other is on Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. The wide differences between these two schools is indicative of the kind of breadth that we have aspired to achieve for the whole series. Each case study is 30 minutes of video, broken into 10- to 15-minute segments, very little of which is us talking. (We will be releasing some analysis episodes that bookend the series, but those were filmed last and will come out after all the case studies.) And as we had hoped, each case study yielded some lessons and surprises for us.
Middlebury College, the first school we went to when we started filming, was not taking part in any cross-institutional (or even institutional) effort to pilot personalized learning technologies and not the kind of school that is typically associated the “personalized learning” software craze. Which is exactly why we wanted to start there. When most Americans think of the best example of a personalized college education, they probably think of an elite New England liberal arts college with a student/teacher ratio of under nine to one. We wanted to go to Middlebury because we wanted a baseline for comparison. We were also curious about just what such schools are thinking about and doing with educational technologies. Like it or not, the elites have an enormous influence on public consciousness and therefore on creating possibilities for improvement. For example, MIT’s announcement of OpenCourseWare was by far the reputation and credibility boost that Open Education Resources has gotten, at least in the United States. So we wanted to see what Middlebury is thinking and what they were up to. We actually knew very little about it going in. It turned out that one of our friends and partners at IN THE TELLING was a Middlebury College alumnus, and that the company was already in the process of working on a course with them. So it was convenient for us to go there. We did a little bit of vetting up front, but for the most part, we really didn’t know what we were going to find when we arrived on campus. We certainly didn’t expect to find a Middlebury professor who, on his own initiative, had rediscovered the flipped classroom approach without even knowing the term and is on a path to creating something like personalized learning courseware:
“Personalized learning” is a marketing term. A more accurate term of art would be “technology-assisted differentiated instruction.” It turns out that, in cases where students in a class come in with wildly different starting knowledge and skill levels, just teaching to the group doesn’t work, even if the group is pretty small. In Jeff’s course, he is really teaching spatial reasoning. Most people never actually get taught that skill in a meaningful way (or even taught that this is something that they could learn), which means that students enter Jeff’s class with whatever they were able to learn on their own based on their natural abilities. And as he points out in the full episode, the difference among these students is more than just how much knowledge they picked up. Domain experts think differently than novices. Experts—including untrained experts whose natural talent accelerates their understanding—tend to start from general principles and apply them to particular problems. Novices have to start by solving problems case-by-case until they can build their own mental models of the general principles. These two types of learners learn in fundamentally different ways. If you have both types in your classroom, then you need a differentiated instruction strategy to deal with that problem. And yes, this challenge can come up even in top-ranked schools.You can see the full episode with Jeff here.
Of course, the place where you really expect to see a wide range of incoming skills and quality of previous education is in public colleges and universities, and at community colleges in particular. At Essex County College, 85% of incoming students start in the lowest level developmental math course. But that statistic glosses over a critical factor, which is there is a huge range of skills and abilities within that 85%. Some students enter almost ready for the next level, just needing to brush up on a few skills, while others come in with math skills at the fourth grade level. On top of that, students come in with a wide range of metacognitive skills. Some of them have not yet learned how to learn, at least this subject in this context. When we talked to students and teachers about their “personalized learning” math classes, this was the problem that they talked about solving. Providing students with differentiated instruction, teaching them from where they are, and empowering them to take control over their educational success. Not software. Not adaptive learning algorithms. Not products. The school identified a set of educational challenges their students face and some pedagogical strategies to help the students meet those challenges. The fact that technology is an enabler is really incidental:
There’s a lot more to this story, even just in this one clip. For example, both the students and the teachers are taking on different roles in Essex County College classrooms. But nobody is being replaced or marginalized by a robot. If anything, the role of the teacher becomes more crucial as faculty get to focus on high-value one-on-one coaching and mentoring.
Even with their richness, we want to be careful not to claim that these two case studies tell anything like the whole story on personalized learning. To the contrary, we believe that one thing all the “big picture” narratives about change in education tend to lose is how heterogeneous education really is. There is no silver bullet, in part because students’ needs and goals vary so much. That’s one reason why, in the case studies we’ll be releasing over the next month, we’ll also be visiting Empire State College, Arizona State University, and University of California, Davis. Each of these school communities as substantially different student needs and substantially different approaches for meeting those needs.
Is “personalized learning” the “future of education”? We think that’s the wrong question, and it’s not one we try to answer. In fact, anyone who asks that question either doesn’t understand education or is just trying to sell you something. We’re more interested in what thoughtful teachers and students are trying and learning about within the family of approaches that has been lumped under the marketing term “personalized learning” as they try to help the students in their local contexts improve their lives.
You can see the full first two case studies here, which is also where we will be releasing the future case studies and our bookend analysis episodes over the coming weeks. We welcome your feedback, either in comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #eLiterateTV.