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Do Our Students Deserve It (Personalized Learning)?

By: Cary Kelly on October 11th, 2016

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Do Our Students Deserve It (Personalized Learning)?

Personalized Learning  |  Classrooms

Do students deserve personalized learning?

Working at Education Elements, where we build and support dynamic school systems that meet the needs of every learner, I’m often quick to answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

It’s hard not to. The narrative of personalized learning is compelling. Why wouldn’t students be better served when recognized as individuals with unique needs, talents and perspectives? The vision of dynamic classroom environments--with targeted instruction and the organized chaos of self-directed student learning--is inspiring. It’s compelling for education activists like myself who are particularly interested in supporting specific student populations (I'm passionate about ELLs) or closing achievement gaps between students of different races or socioeconomic classes.

But do our students deserve personalized learning? Deserve is a weighty word, raising the question of equity. Without having read much of the existing rich body of research and thought on education equity in the United States, it’s hard for me to speak authoritatively on what our students deserve. In fact, when I began to write this post, I quickly realized that a) I have left much to learn about the concept of equity, and b) I would do better to recommend reputable edequity experts.*

Cary Kelly Edtective tweetsMaybe the more realistic question for me to explore as a personalized learning specialist is whether we do harm to students by not personalizing. From having worked with district leaders across the nation, I know that taking the time and energy to invest in systemic personalized learning is daunting. In the context of other district needs--like standards-based accountabilities, legal compliance, community demands, etc.--it can also seem risky. So, can we afford to ignore personalized learning for our students, at least for now?

My conclusion is…no, absolutely not. My argument? The current wave of classroom edtech integration will have rough consequences, likely inequitable consequences, if we do not authentically personalize learning.

We're integrating personal devices and wi-fi at an astounding rate in schools. In fact, the 2015 Sprint State of Edtech report shows that 60% of districts use a laptop or desktop daily in class. According to EducationSuperHighway, 77% of districts now meet FCC internet connectivity goals.

Four Students

While this level of internet access allows us to personalize learning experiences at unprecedented scale, I also fear what issues might be exacerbated by this trend. Whereas tech innovation is often perceived as a rising tide that lifts all boats, it can just as easily become a flood, hurting those who happen to be on lower ground.

I'm echoing what other edequity writers have stated before, that technology could widen achievements gaps. For example, students from affluent families with at-home devices and wi-fi are vastly more comfortable using technology than students from device- or internet-less homes. Makes sense. Yet if districts are not prepared to vary instruction to accommodate disparities in digital fluency, a 1:1 initiative could greatly accelerate learning for privileged students while constituting a learning challenge for the less privileged.

This is why no adaptive program or online class should ever replace teachers in the classroom. Internet and personal devices are not equalizers. Technology does not create equity. I believe equity requires human care and careful attention to individual students needs. In the words of Audrey Watters, well-known edtech writer and critic, "computers cannot, computers do not care."

Edtech integration without conversations about personalized learning is like eating dessert before dinner: fun and tasty for a time, but ultimately disastrous for long-term health.

Life is Short Eat Dessert First

Without having explicit conversations about how technology does (or does not) support a classroom's model of personalized learning, we risk losing equity advancements made concerning race, sexuality, gender, language-ability, special needs and socioeconomic class. Yet for those conversations to happen, districts need to first design classroom models for personalized learning. And before that, there needs to be district-wide definitions of and visions for edtech, innovation and personalized learning.

Where should districts start in their discussions? I recommend starting with an examination of ideology, an abstract yet important topic if we're truly concerned with value-systems and equity. Though the common narrative around technology is one of nonpartisan social progress, innovation and edtech still have their own biased ideologies, ones that uplift certain perspectives and downplay others. Imagine personalized learning as the fuel for the district-wide discovery around what these ideologies represent and how they influence the way we approach school re-design. 

Only after that conversation would I look at technology's potential for changing classroom instruction, perhaps beginning by ranking current edtech options against Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning as Anthony Kim does in his Personalized Learning Playbook.

Blooms Taxonomy Anthony Kim

By examining the related beliefs and role of edtech in a broader classroom model for personalization, we can design pedagogy that takes into account what student voice/choice might look like--with and without technology--for an entire spectrum of student backgrounds and learning styles. In an already hyper-individualized society where services are on-demand, customized and adaptive, we risk making conventional education irrelevant if we do not consider personalization. I believe that our students deserve that we have those conversations and transform school accordingly, lest we harm them in our distraction.


*Authors and thought leaders on education equity who have been recommended to me: Lisa Delpit, Nel Noddings, bell hooks, John Holt, Jonathon Kozol, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Eleanor Ruth Duckworth. Have additional suggestions? Comment below or send me a tweet.

Photo Credits: Life is short...Eat Dessert First


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