Personalized learning, however, often manifests itself in school districts in less dynamic ways than in Maine and at High Tech High. The initiatives often become software or technology-based, with digital “instruction” adjusting based on competency levels or skills of its student users. It’s not about student passion or authentic projects—it’s all about remediating and measuring specific academic skills.
And as I’ve experienced first-hand, the role of teachers shifts dramatically with the adoption of these adaptive programs. Instead of a teacher striving to know a student on multiple levels—from understanding the nuances of his or her academic skills, to building positive relationships and crafting learning experiences based on more than numerical reading scores—educators are on the sidelines while a machine takes over. Personalized learning often becomes inherently impersonal; it’s a sterile approach to messy, complex classroom processes. And there’s also big money at stake for education-technology companies and curriculum publishers who are taking advantage of pressure to increase academic achievement.
According to this 2014 Education Week report, the Federal Department of Education Race to the Top competition awarded 16 school districts $350 million dollars to support efforts to personalize learning, often including adaptive software and digital tools as part of their plans.
For example, Miami-Dade Public Schools’ plan included buying access to Carnegie Learning’s Mathia, a program that “tutors” middle-school students in math. Carson City, Nevada’s, school system included a plan to incorporate MasteryConnect, which, according to report, is updated in real time as students take assessments, looking at mastery of learning targets (or specific academic skills). I wonder if educators in these locales are feeling as conflicted as I am.
Critics of the software-driven personalized-learning trend, including the author Alfie Kohn and FairTest, an organization dedicated to curtailing misuses and flaws of standardized testing, contend that there are significant problems with this approach. Kohn laments school districts’ focus on improving test scores as a catalyst in software adoption. One of the issues addressed in this FairTest post is that “frequent online student assessments require teachers to review copious amounts of data instead of teaching, observing and relating to students.” I agree with both of these criticisms, particularly the idea of losing more opportunities for human interaction in favor of customized screen time.
In 2014, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled “My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation,” arguing that students’ reliance on screen time is detracting from their ability to communicate verbally. And now school systems are adopting programs designed to keep students glued to yet another screen for reading practice, which, by design, is a closed system. With Reading Plus, students do not have the shared experience and discussions after reading the same text, like when we analyze Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” or The Color Purple together. It’s all individualized, silent work. While we are still a community of learners, it feels less dynamic, even if students are making incremental reading gains according to the program.