Personalized learning is one of the newest hypes in education.
Its hardly new and has always had a place in the mix of models for education.
But there are side effects which need to be considered.
A recent interview with Mark Zuckerberg on Personalized learning
produced quite a bit of discussion.
Other hypes in education were "Technology in the classroom", "Flipped classrooms",
"Integrated curricula", an other one is "Personalized learning"
It looks like a nice idea: every student learns with an individual pace and speed.
Here is a prototype:
Source: Personalized learning in
A good learning experience for
Spock. But is it good for everybody?
But there are also problems to consider:
It looks as if personalized learning breaks competition. The contrary is the case. In reality,
it is much more competitive. Its an "everybody by itself" mentality.
Especially in online test settings, where everybody progresses in the own
pace, there are huge differences very soon. Its not like a school excursion,
where everybody together hikes onto the peak of a mountain but a race, where
everybody runs individually onto different peaks. It looks good in hollywood movies
a genre which very much likes "heroes" or "number ones".
In the real world, it is not that simple.
Already after a short time, the abilities of the individual
members of a class will be so diverse that
it becomes difficult to mend the spectrum of abilities.
One will have to rip apart the classes every semester to have students
go individually. It divides and is elitary.
Some separation is necessary, but it should not be done too early to be healthy.
One reason is that the development of brains and thinking abilities are
individual. If the separation starts too early, some students who are just
slower in development will fall behind just due to the structure of education.
Fast students tend to try to run even faster and not reflect on things
any more. Sometimes, it can be good to be slowed down a bit and get not
only knowledge, but it gets the creative thinking skills developed. This can go away
if one has to race and run too fast all the time. On the other end, some slower students who
reflect more and think about the subject more deeply, get left behind. Its a vicious circle,
very smart kids can go lost because of divisive approaches. I myself was not
interested in math until in high school. Initially at was even at the bottom of the class.
I got interested mostly because I had a good
teacher but also because I started to like more abstract thinking once I got older which for
other kids might have happened earlier.
Personalized learning (coaching or tutoring) makes a lot of sense on the top and bottom.
This happens today at the top for example when students participate in research projects
or write a thesis. On the other end, it
also happens when helping slower students in coaching or tutoring
sessions. Personalized teaching also makes sense in office hours
or one to one student teacher
meetings. But this is not the personalized learning which is addressed in the interview above.
The personalized learning hype meant there is (to put it extreme),
the call for getting rid of classrooms but to learn online. It is a vision which might
work, or which might fail. Its hard to predict.
I personally believe it will remain be part of an ever growing mix of
tools and education possibilities. But even great visionaries got these
things wrong. Google glass for example looked very promising, also for education,
but it badly failed, due to social resistance (wearers were called "Glassholes").
Virtual reality (maybe one of the things which will come big
in education, but maybe not) is not by accident being pushed very hard by companies like facebook.
It might be a path towards a pure online education, where each student can immerse in
an individual learning experience, analogue to the scene in the above Star trek clip.
Again, there can be surprises. I learned French in "language labs", where we students
would sit in a lab, have earphones and microphones (virtual reality without the visual
part) and individually interact with a teacher which was on tape.
It did not work. As far as I know, these
labs have all been broken down. An other example: at the university of
Arizona, I taught a course in differential equations in a classroom,
where every student had access to a computer. It was awkward.
Students would type, play games or program rather than paying attention. It was not so
much the technology, but the way the technology side effects which produced the problem:
the computer screens were a barrier between teacher and student. It is
hard to predict. With VR devices, the difficulties might again come from an unexpected
part (like people getting dizzy, claustrophobic or feel isolated as there are less
interpersonal contacts any more).
Personalized learning can be an extreme elitary approach to education:
Some top students will be charging ahead and progress fast. They get even more encouraged.
Most will trail and get frustrated. It is a vicious circle. Once frustrated the student
works less on the subject and falls back even more. After only a very short time, the
difference is so large that it is impossible to bridge it. It is amazing: we all have
the same hardware in our brains, the same number of neurons and computation abilities. Still,
there are huge differences between abilities.
One major reason (as I experience again and again) is that there are positive feedback loops in learning
and negative feedback loops. Its hard to get out of the spiral in any direction. I'm personally
convinced (and have seen that a lot my own experience both as a student
(which I remain up to this day) and teacher)
that this is not so much built in ability but can be explained by positive or
negative feedback. And overdone competition makes the instable equilibrium even less stable.
How does one assess students in a personalized setting? The tests will have to be
individualized and the level and amount of material mastered
will have to be taken into account. Testing and assessment will be
difficult to be done in a fair way.
One approach is to leave assessment away completely. But this has never worked.
Like some ideologies, which sound good, it might look good, but it does not work.
Assessment is a very effective part of teaching. It is a control mechanism and allows
the student to reflect on learning habits and time management.
I also believe that one hardly does learn as
much as in an assessment situation. It is stressful, yes, but if the test is well done,
it produces a lasting pillar in the memory. Again, the pickle is here that it has to be
done well. What one sees as testing in online tests is often so catastrophic that it does
not even deserve the name assessment, the problem are usually small glitches or ambiguities
which can happen. Thats why tests in the classroom (as we do it) work quite well. We as
proctors can defuse or clarify during the test if necessary. Writing good tests is the
most important part of education, by far. If this is done wrong, everything fails.
Personalized learning, to be done well, would definitely need more teaching resources. It
also needs more skills and sensitivity from the teacher side. Both adapting to slower students
as well to faster students can be hard. On the top of the spectrum,
there will be students who quickly out pace the teacher. On the bottom of the spectrum
there will be students who use too much resources of the teacher.
There had been a nice presentation in the Harvard business school (which I'm really sorry not
having electronically), where one of the lecturer said: "We pay a lot of attention to the
top 10 percent (fans of the product) and to the lowest 10 percent
(who complain about the product). But we don't pay attention
to the middle 80 percent which use it. This insight comes from business, but it
also holds for education.
One could use the better students to tutor the weaker ones.
This peer model is widely used in online courses too. But it is not as
simple. There are important psychological aspects. The main aspect is frustration.
It has been done before (even in my primary schools where different
classes were together my teachers have used peer instruction).
Peer teaching sounds good
but it produces an even more hierarchical structure in the class than
in traditional settings. A few elite students will shine, most others
will be frustrated. The class is ripped apart even more. The teacher has to
select the peer fellows. This can be very unjust and is often done by
favoritism (the teacher likes a student much or is friends to the parents
or the student is a son or daughter of an important person in the town)
and not necessarily by ability. By selecting somebody to be a peer fellow, a
pre-selection is done. Assessment of personalities and abilities is difficult
and usually very poorly done (illustrated well in the movie
Money Ball, where sometimes
players would be dismissed, because "they throw funny" and where statisticians were
able to cut through the prejudice of "experts".)
Most other students will resent not being selected.
One has to find a balance between individual speed and community
By breaking the teaching parts into smaller units, this is possible. We had at Caltech
trimesters rather than semesters. It helps a more towards individualized learning but
it also makes it harder to choose courses. Caltech is an elite school, so it works there.
Nothing against some elite schools. But this is not a model for all.
Having students chose courses in a faster pace makes a school competitive.
Good? Maybe. Healthy? Maybe. By the way,
I have never seen students work so hard than at Caltech. When I was working late at
night or through the night for finishing up a paper, I had difficulties to find
a free computer at night at 1 AM! No problem however to find a workstation
during the day...
Unlike claimed, personalized learning is not new at all.
Yes, technology has changed a lot. The basic ingredients
have not. The basic mechanisms are the same.
What is the difference between watching a movie
in a TV (in the sixties) or online? The TV version did not
allow to slow it down or do it an other time, but it had
an advantage: one had to focus and do things on time. Procrastination
was not an option. The reason why traditional classroom settings are effective is also
because it disables procrastination, produces community and helps long term memory.
I myself do know the math best, which has been provided by good teachers, live!
It provided me with a strong skeleton, built into long term memory, and helped to navigate
other parts of a ever growing landscape of mathematics. Without the guidance and advise
of good teachers, knowledge is pointless. Go to the library and open one of the
hundreds of thousands of math books. Which one is relevant, which parts are
important? This is hard to find out, especially when being new in a subject. A guide
can help. Thats what the teacher is for mostly: a strong guide.
It is not surprising that personalized learning is promoted by big tech companies
like Facebook because education is important for the health of the economy.
Good education is essential to remain relevant and a necessity
for the survival in a fast-paced competitive and global world).
On the other hand, more and more of the population feel increasingly left out,
employees are thrown away at will if it increases profit. Demagogy and extreme ideas have
therfore had more success lately (like in the US presidential race, or in recent
elections in Europe) We live in a time of huge differences, not only in
wealth, but also in education. The concept of institutionalized personalized education can
widen the gaps even more. It is maybe the most important challenge to produce
top scientists, leaders and engineers without losing the majority.
Competition is good. A problem with a over competitive approach
is that the overall support for education can disappear. The majority will no
more care and also no more be willing to pay taxes for the huge amount of support which is
needed in education and research. This is already the case today.
The selection and competition, when overdone, can become
contra productive. It is a balance. It is a variational problem and sometimes, things
are counter intuitive. Driving apart the student body
already at a young age is maybe not the most productive approach. As kids, we called students
who were over eager "Strebers". Being a "Streber" (German for "striving to be the first")
was a curse word, but there was also some admiration for students who did well in school.
It was a balance: being good without appearing to want it to, was cool, but
being good at all cost, (being a "Streber" going over dead bodies), was despised.
And this is how it maybe should be.
But is it not true that online and personalized education opens a world-class education
to the world? Maybe. Certainly to a large degree, it has become easier to get to information
and access to education. Maybe also that it is over estimated.
Almost all information was already available in principle
to everybody who has an internet connection or to a library. There are peta-bytes of information,
tens of thousands of books and articles are already available online and in libraries
in mathematics alone. Over information is not new, this was already the case at the time when the library of
Alexandria was still intact.
Today has access to dozens of excellent free software development tools. Thirty years ago, one
had to go to the library for information, use a book to repair a car or cook a special meal,
now one watches it in a youtube videos. But in principle, it is the same. The information was there.
There is a big difference between taking a course
from a great teacher in person or learn from somebody in person
rather than reading the book. Today, everybody
has access to thousands of books, and computing power, libraries are open with enormous amount of
information. One can watch fantastic TED talks or lectures from meetings.
Does this mean to be educated? Not at all.
Every piece of information has a shelf life. Every unit of information has to be
absorbed. With a huge amount of information, one has to select. And one has
also to re-evaluate again and again what is important. Some resources live longer, other parts do not.
The wisdom of the crowd and social media is not always the best guide (evenso it is a parameter).
And cold coffee is poison for education.
This is true especially in a fast paced time like ours.
While personalized learning is the norm in higher college or graduate
courses and is almost the norm later in life, it is tempting as an educator or theoretical
thinker to propose it also to education like in K12 or early college education.
But just because cognitive development can be individual, turning on the race too early on
and selecting too early can produce enormous collateral damage. Every wonder-kid promoted and hyped
early on comes with ten frustrated colleagues who are indirectly told they are dumb, just because their brain
develops differently or slower. As a thirty year old, nobody gives a damn any more whether they are
among the best or not in a certain field because one has diversified interests and main brain development has
finished, but as a kid, it matters especially because of the presence of
positive and negative feedback loops (if you are considered "good" in something, you do it more and become
better), which explains the huge differences (several orders of magnitudes) we have in cognitive abilities, despite the fact
that we essentially all have the same hardware (humans all have essentially the same number of neurons, memory,
signal processing speed etc.). Proponents of individualized learning to consider this. Maybe it allows a
few students to learn faster but it comes with a cost. Economically, it might be a huge mistake:
the majority of the population will become adverse or even hostile to science and education will have even
less resources in the future because nobody wants to pay any more for it.
Personalized learning appears attractive (especially to profit driven business and
administration folks) because it can in principle be used to use less or cheaper teachers
(MOOCs are developed primarily also to work with
fewer tenured teacher resources in the long term. A development which progresses so fast
that it is simply astounding). I have seen charts in an education conference in math which
shocked me but can not find them right now.
Here is an example chart. In math it was already more extreme. The model is that the
content is provided by a few teachers and recorded. Most teachers would
work in flipped classroom settings, where the teacher does not need any more
to be that knowledgeable or creative (as they are serving canned content, worksheets, online quizzes
etc). But this is the fast food of education. Yes, it is cheap, yes it can look tasty. But is
One comment in a slashdot
discussion hits the spot:
Yes, all the studies showing problems with personalized learning are simply showing that we had not yet figured out how to do it well. There is simply no way that a one-size-fits all bureaucracy can educate as well as a system with tools that allow teachers to tailor activities to individual children. The problem is that personalized education is a much harder problem than many believe. It is easy to make an app that adapts the math problems assigned to a student's performance. But it is much harder to produce group learning activities that match varied skills. And if you put kids each on a single computer which is 'personalized', you can be sure they will learn less than if they are working together learning the social skills and executive function needed to succeed in the world. Eventually we'll succeed in personalizing teaching of social skills, executive function, reading, and math. But it is a hard problem.
In many ways the problem is like artificial intelligence. It is a much harder problem than people thought. But that doesn't mean that it is impossible and as parts of it are solved it slowly changes everything.