Personalized learning and giant backpacks of cash

 

Justin Reich, a history teacher and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center who writes the “EdTechResearcher” blog for Education Week, is one of the smartest critical thinkers out there on education and technology, and I’m proud to call him a friend as well. Last week he gave a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center that intersects with many of the issues I’ve been covering on this blog, and asks some important questions.

Technology, says Reich, definitely has the capability to “Tremendously expand human potential and achievement,” but at the same time, it’s often “taking very old and very tired ideas and putting them in shiny new form factors.” And he himself often can’t tell which is which. But he keeps three principles in mind to help him understand the difference:

1) Students learn just as much from who educators are as from anything we teach them. There is as much meaning embedded in the architecture, grammar, systems, and roles of schooling as in anything that moves through them. (I would say this applies in the family even more so; children learn much more from who parents are than from anything they say).

2) When faced with any shiny new innovation, it’s always important to ask: what’s really new here?

3) Finally, when seizing on the new, is it possible to think through the second and third-order consequences of our decisions? What are the potential unintended consequences?

Reich made the distinction between “blended learning” and “connected learning,” which is somewhat similar to what I talked about as the distinction between “technology for education” and “technology for learners.” If traditional education is often disparaged as a factory model, blended learning can amount to little more than giving each student his or her own personal assembly line. They can move at their own pace through material that matches their needs at the moment, but the steps in the chain are predetermined.

Assuming that we don’t have the money to give each student his or her own real live tutor, blended learning offers undisputed advantages.

The irony is that “personalization” means in this context that millions of students in blended learning programs are consuming content created by one “rock star” teacher or team of teachers (Sal Khan, say), with whom they have very little actual contact.

This kind of personalization reminds me of a podcast I recently listened to on the forecasting of colors. Big brands make decisions at least a year in advance, based on global trends, about what shades and styles we will be wearing and putting in our houses, but they are sure to include just enough variation that people feel able to express their individuality by picking and choosing from the limited menu on offer. That is what freedom looks like under capitalism.

The unintended consequence, in both cases, is the same. Blended learning treats students like consumers who want what they want when they want it. It’s aligned with a political idea that goes back to Milton Friedman, that funding for schools should be “unbundled” into a voucher or even microvoucher system, where a “giant backpack of cash” follows students to whatever educational vendor they choose for any subject.

This kind of model, when taken to an extreme, Reich suggests, could destroy the civic and community function of schools. Instead of diverse students connecting and collaborating on creative projects you have isolated individuals plugged into laptops. It also fades the actual classroom teacher into secondary roles of tech support or troubleshooter or at best, “pastoral” counselor, coach, guide or motivator.

I would add that by fetishizing individual student choice, the obsession with personalization creates a new kind of divide between students who know enough and have enough support to be self-motivated learners, and those who may need more guidance than they’re getting in order to make the best choices.

I think these are great questions to raise. I also think the dichotomy Reich is drawing — for necessary rhetorical reasons, perhaps–is too sharp. There may be more synergies available between connected and blended learning approaches than it at first seems. The distinction reminds me of the recent controversy over Marissa Meyer’s canceling of work-from-home agreements for some Yahoo employees. Research shows that working from home raises individuals’ productivity, flexibility and sometimes job satisfaction, but working with others in an office–and outside the office, engaging with competitors, clients, and the public–is key for innovation and creativity. So is it better to allow telecommuting or make everyone come into the office? It all depends. People need both inward-directed and outward-directed modes.

At its best, blended learning allows for a flipped classroom, balancing individualized learning and practice time with highly engaged project-based learning. You can see a similar educational approach taken by many homeschooling families who use science fairs, sports teams, arts camps, and other activities to balance the self-directed, highly individualized learning they’re doing at home. The two modes are, at their best, complementary.

The political implications of blended learning are more fraught, if they’re tied to a push to increase class sizes and defund public schools in favor of for-profit vendors. But I don’t see tech companies and teachers, or blended and connected learning, as natural enemies.


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON May 20, 2013

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