A few weeks ago, Jonathan Rees wrote a post calling out that, no matter what potential of so-called “personalized learning” for improving student outcomes, there is a potential—and a temptation—for it to be abused as a method of lowering (labor) costs in a way that also lowers educational quality and effectiveness. This is a serious and realistic concern, particularly as long as personalized learning is framed as a product rather than a set of teaching strategies.
Phil and I have addressed this concern head-on in our latest piece on EdSurge. I suppose a battle over the meaning of the term was inevitable; why should this one be any different from all the others? There is an enormous disconnect between the way the term is used in product marketing and ed tech circles and the way it is actually applied in the real world in cases places it actually works. I have seen a number of cases in which personalized learning, as an educational strategy, produces good results for students. But every single one of those cases has had one or more good educators leading the charge, thinking hard about how to better serve the students. At its best, personalized learning is an effort to identify those classroom and institutional practices that are depersonalizing, and use technology as an aid to teaching strategies and support processes that can replace those practices with something more humane. Perhaps we should call it “undepersonalized learning.”
As such, true personalized learning should be labor-friendly in important ways. It should put a premium on skilled educators and make a strong case for increased investment in professional development and teaching-friendly tenure and promotion practices. That doesn’t mean it will always be job-preserving. The focus should be on students and agnostic with respect to student/teacher ratios. It is possible to achieve a more humane and personal education at scale. Sometimes. With a lot of thought and iteration. But I have seen no evidence to suggest that personalized learning technologies improve outcomes significantly without good teachers at the helm, and plenty of evidence suggesting that they don’t.