“Personalized” Learning: Driven By Data, Surveilled By Algorithms

This is the third of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website. Read the introduction and question one, Talking Across the Pond, here and question two about virtual reality field trips here.

Privatizing Schools: Question 3 on Blended Learning

An English school chain set up by a group of hedge fund managers, Ark Schools, is planning a ‘blended learning academy’, on the model of the California-based Rocketship charter schools (see here). Other academy chains are experimenting with computer-based instruction and ‘one-to-one device programmes’. Could you say something about blended learning – or ‘personalised learning’, as it is becoming known?

My Response

During the 2013-14 school year over 1.7 million students in the state of Pennsylvania attended one of 16 online virtual schools, a number of which are steeped in corruption. Often parents felt compelled to remove students from bricks and mortar schools that were not meeting their children’s needs due to intentional underfunding, chronic mismanagement, refusal to meet terms of individual education plans, and health or safety concerns. The shift of public funds into virtual charters has been financially destabilizing to school districts across our state, and studies continue to show most students are not well served by the online model.

Besides charter operators offering home-based, 100% online learning, a growing number of traditional classrooms in the United States are experiencing a shift to digital education via learning management systems, the “personalized learning” you reference. These systems deploy unique log-ins, machine learning, and algorithms, serving up online content to students as young as five years old. The youngest children cannot remember their usernames and passwords, so they are issued QR code badges that are scanned with the device camera. These “Clever” badges are widely used in Rocketship Academy charter schools.

As the price point for tablets and Chrome books has dropped, it has become increasingly common for students, even in low-income districts, to be issued their own device through 1:1 initiatives. Parents are required to sign-off and take responsibility for devices and sometimes pay insurance fees. All device-based activity is subject to monitoring, and many districts contract with software companies like Go Guardian for remote viewing, screen capture, and content control. Parents are finding that schools no longer provide print textbooks. Instead, students must access content via screens, which has spurred growing concern around vision problems and reduced reading comprehension and retention. The state of Maryland recently passed a law requiring research into best practices for screen-time for children, including device use in school settings to address these concerns.

The blended-hybrid learning model has been widely promoted by the online learning industry over the past decade. Though it can take a number of forms, it is generally understood to be supervised learning away from home that is carried out at least partially online with the student having input over the pace of their learning. While described as “personalized” learning, the reality is that many programs are just digital worksheets or playlists of videos, sometimes known open education resources (OER), and reading selections with associated online quizzes. Those pushing “playlist” “personalized learning” include Silicon Valley moguls like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook / Summit Basecamp) and Reed Hastings (Netflix / Dreambox). Hastings, a charter school supporter and investor in Rocketship, has made it clear his goal is to undermine local control of schools, by eliminating elected school boards, which he views as inefficient.

iNACOL, the International Association of K12 Online Learning, has been a major force behind the promotion of expanded digital education in our country. See their report on blended learning with an assessment of models from 2008-2015 here. iNACOL’s board is comprised of individuals representing social impact investing, competency-based education, learning ecosystems (as a substitute for neighborhood schools), and data-driven innovation. Mickey Revenaugh, a director of new school models (online virtual schools / Connections Academy) for Pearson, serves as vice-chair.

Another player in this arena is Clayton Christensen’s Innosight Institute. Christensen is a venture capitalist and professor at the Harvard Business School known for his work on disruptive innovation in the fields of education and healthcare. In 2011, Innosight collaborated with the Charter School Growth Fund to develop an overview of various “personalized” learning models underway in the United States. That report, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” can be accessed here.

Online learning is a means by which schools may reduce staffing costs, pushing up class sizes and hiring non-certified assistants to monitor students while online. Many schools start out with a rotational model in which the day is divided into thirds. Students spend part of their day pursuing online learning individually, part of their day collaborating online with peers, and part of the day in small group instruction with a human teacher. Education Elements is a consulting firm and mouthpiece for the industry that works closely with the Christensen Institute to promote the rotational online learning model. They’ve facilitated adoption of “personalized learning” in over 100 districts across the country. If you’d like to know more, I’ve written other pieces on “personalized” learning here, here, here, and here.

4 thoughts on ““Personalized” Learning: Driven By Data, Surveilled By Algorithms”

    1. somehow we’ll need to coin a few new words to really make what is happening more understandable: the word “depersonalized” is depressing, but few are responding to it. Perhaps something along the lines of “cloning” mixed with “controlling” and “punishing.” People really do not see the massive danger in having Silicon Valley thinkers decide school curricula and its delivery…

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  1. The marketing phrase “personalized learning” has slithered into discussions of education as if learning is the natural and inevitable outcome of online delivery of INSTRUCTION, with algorithms determining which chunks of information (or which tasks) a student should encounter next. The paradigm for online delivery of instruction marketed as “personalized” learning is the Teach to One program, exclusively devoted to math.
    Teach to One is a middle school multi-grade math curriculum designed to offer many paths to right answers for problems of different types. Here’s the gist of how this version of “blended learning” works. A school signs a contract that requires it to provide a dedicated space, large video panels connected to the Internet, Chromebooks, and other resources. Diagnostic tests are used to determine what each student will learn, in what sequence, for the whole year.
    These decisions are made by a computer with tweaks in the system made by staff in New York City. Every day, students check video panels to find their own “play list” of tasks and “exit slips.” At the end of the 90-minute class, their exit slips go to the central server in New York City. Computers grade the tests, then determine and post the next-day playlist of tasks and tests for each student. The tasks and tests are selected from a huge library of computer coded modules of instructional content (much of it conventional and contracted for from various sources).
    Then, in a space once used as the library, students rotate among computer-assigned “learning modalities” every 30 minutes (large or small group instruction, worksheets, online). Two teachers and two aides manage up to 67 students. Students receive a penalty if they fail to raise their hands to ask a question. More than 25% of 53 schools have dropped the program. “Personalized” is a marketing term for a range of computer-centric classrooms with so-called “blended” programs the most common.
    TEACH TO ONE is supported by the Bezos Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan-Zuckerberg Educational Alliance, New Profit Inc., Oak Foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and about 47 other investors.
    BACKGROUND & CRITIQUE: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/02/teach_to_one_what
    _happens_when_computers_pick_what_students_learn.html ALSO: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schools-annual-2017

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    1. the very title for this last article should be the number one question now discussed at all educational and political meetings: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN COMPUTERS (computers filled with software written by largely White males hanging out with other White males inside that la-la land called Silicon Valley) PICK WHAT STUDENTS LEARN

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