By Neerav Kingsland

This blog first published on Reliquishment.org

I just got back from vacation, which was a great time to read The Three Body Problem science fiction trilogy, a wonderful series that revolves around the protagonist using first principles thinking to negotiate with an alien species.

Upon my return, I read the Rand report on personalized learning, which was funded by the Gates Foundation.

The report covers a small set of schools in the early years of implementation, so best not to draw too firm of conclusions. The report found:

  • Charters that adopted personalized learning strategies saw a +.1 effect in math and nothing statistically significant in reading.
  • District schools (very small N) saw no achievement gains.
  • Charter schools implemented personalized learning strategies with more operational fidelity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the authors noted:

In this theoretical conception, schools that are high implementers of PL [personalized learning] approaches would look very different from more traditional schools. In practice, although there were some differences between the NGLC schools and the national sample, we found that schools in our study were implementing PL approaches to a varying degree, with none of the schools looking as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict.

So in this sample, charters outperform traditional schools (though by a lesser margin than urban charters as a whole outperform traditional schools), charters execute better and the schools themselves don’t look radically different than traditional schools.

Hence the title of this post: personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology.

Without a technological breakthrough, the current personalized learning efforts will, at best, lead to modest improvements in the execution of common place ideas (using data to drive instruction, executing leveled small group instruction, investing children in goals, etc.). School will look the same and be a little more effective and pleasant for all involved.

This is fine and the world is in many ways built on modest improvements.

But for personalized learning to live up to its hype (as well as to its philanthropic investment), it will need a technological breakthrough.

Instructional platforms might be the first breakthrough, but even here I think the primary effects will be more around scaling great school models and content rather than deep personalization.

The crux of the issue is this: computers are simply not as good as humans in coaching students through instructional problems. Your average person off the street remains a more effective grade school tutor than the most powerful computer in the world.

Until this changes, personalized learning will never realize its promise. The problem is one of technology, not practice.

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