Is personalized learning a problem of privilege?

teacher-classroom

Paul Emerich France, a National Board Certified Educator, reading specialist, and classroom teacher in Chicago, wrote the article “Personalized Learning is a Problem of Privilege” for EdSurge. I’ll use this post to share my thoughts (in indented green).

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Personalized Learning Is a Problem of Privilege
By Paul France | Jan 21, 2018

Education is a dynamic space, with new trends constantly ebbing and flowing, the pendulum swinging back and forth between truly new innovations and recycled ideas. Experienced educators will recognize these patterns. But for younger teachers like me, whose careers are still in their infancy, it’s not so easy to see through the blinders.

When I moved to the Silicon Valley in 2014, I, like many, joined the gold rush to pursue this idea called “personalized learning.” I thought it was a panacea. I truly believed that tech-powered personalized learning could be the answer education was waiting for.

Call that what you want—a misguided, naive, idealist, arrogant optimism. Perhaps the idea of personalized learning as a panacea is all of those things—or none of them. But I’ve come to learn that the label “personalized learning,” or whatever the next big thing is called, doesn’t matter. What matters more is challenging the underlying assumptions and social structures that breed inequitable ideas that do not serve what teachers and students actually need.

I don’t regret my time in the Valley, though. It taught me some important lessons that I will take with me for the rest of my career. After three years there, here’s what I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that personalized learning doesn’t necessitate technology use.

We often conflate individualization with personalization. To sustainably individualize every child’s education, it helps to have the assistance of a complex technological algorithm to assign activities to children. But this happens at a cost. Using an algorithm to determine what children see is impersonal and dehumanizing. This approach focuses on consumption of educational material instead of interaction with meaningful provocations.

Without definitions, it’s impossible to gauge Mr. France’s use of “individualization” and “personalization” and how they differ from one another. That said, “assistance of a complex technological algorithm” is not necessarily the same thing as “using an algorithm to determine what children see.” First, the best definitions of personalizing learning are founded on educators being supported by technology, not replaced by it. Second, there may be areas where technology does an equal or better job (self-driving cars are a good analogy here), freeing up the educator to focus his or her time and energy in other ways. There’s nothing in any reasonable interpretation or implementation of personalized learning that “focuses on consumption of educational material instead of interaction with meaningful provocations.”

For context, let’s again turn to the Center for Collaborative Education’s definition of personalized learning.

Personalized Learning tailors the educational experience for every student by embracing individual strengths, needs, interests, and culture, and elevating student voice and choice to raise engagement and achievement. Personalized learning takes place within the context of educational equity, providing culturally responsive learning environments and equitable educational opportunities for all students.

I see why this way of thinking prevails, though, as I used to subscribe to it. The scope of skills taught in schools is relatively narrow, and at first, it’s reasonable to assume that the right arrangement of activities on a playlist, or the correct sequence of Khan Academy videos, could meet the needs of all children.

I’ve come to learn that this way of thinking is reductive, at best. It’s simply a more sophisticated version of an industrialized model for education, moving kids through a customizable assembly line, adding quizzes, games, and videos at different rates and in different orders.

It’s important to recognize that not all technology is bad. Tools that minimize complexity, make educators more powerful, connect individuals, or redefine learning tasks can contribute to a more personal learning environment. Tools like Seesaw help children create multidimensional digital portfolios and let their parents partake in their learning journeys; apps like iCardSort and Popplet allow children to explore abstract thinking; programs like Google Earth and Skype can connect faraway people and places, redefining what sorts of experiences can take place within the four walls of the classroom.

It’s just important to remember to ask ourselves why we’re using technology, and to make sure that it is making learning personal by amplifying our humanity, not limiting it.

Second, I’ve learned that personalized learning is a problem of privilege, and that education’s problems are mainly systemic.

Technologists and their wealthy funders often hypothesize that the problems afflicting education can be amended through digital tools. But many sometimes fail to acknowledge the role that privilege and inequity play in perpetuating injustice, and instead presume that tech tools that individualize will “close the achievement gap.” Schools in affluent communities can access these technology tools easily, while schools in low-income areas—and which, generally speaking, disproportionately serve communities of color—do not have access to these tools. But even if they did, I think they’d find that personalized learning is not a need at all, and that there are more pressing matters to address.

France’s argument here better supports the case for making effective personalized learning available to all than it does for suppressing the benefits of effective personalized learning for the privileged.

Many “personalized learning” tools don’t fulfill real needs. Rather, they serve perceived needs that have been fueled by privilege. Parents don’t need immediate, real-time updates on their child’s progress, and they don’t need their child’s education to be individualized. Modern society’s desire for instant gratification and boundless transparency has convinced us that these are real problems, when in reality, they’re simply socially constructed preferences.

I agree that parents don’t need “immediate, real-time updates on their child’s progress,” but I can’t see why they (and their children) wouldn’t benefit from effective individualized education (which is not remotely the same thing as “boundless transparency”).

What children need more are well-trained, well-compensated teachers who work in emotionally-safe environments where sustainability and humanity are valued above all else. But most schools are hardly able to pay teachers equitably, nonetheless train them to hone their practice, develop engaging curriculum or even use existing technologies effectively.

What if all the billions in private capital that support the edtech industry were matched by an equal commitment to supporting our educational infrastructure? I’d like to see that kind of money invested to create a sustainable system for teaching and learning, one that actualizes a democratic vision for education by combating privilege and promoting equity within and between schools.

Schools spend something on the order of 5% of their budget on curricular materials (including edtech and infrastructure). Even in a tech-intensive environment, that number won’t top 10%. Shifting a portion of that spend to support “our educational infrastructure” doesn’t provide enough funding to appreciably move that needle. And, technology offers the promise of helping to reduce the bigger piece of the pie—educator cost. With good edtech, I argue, a smaller number of better supported teachers will be able to get better outcomes at a lower cost. Are we there yet? No. Should we try to get there? Yes.

By neglecting to do so—and by choosing to invest in technology instead of people—we only deepen the divide between school districts, perpetuating compounding cycles of privilege and oppression that will only continue to widen the gap between high- and low-income schools.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that we need to work together.

There is no panacea or silver bullet that will solve the great problem of education. Relying on venture capitalism to solve perceived problems through tech-powered personalized learning only perpetuates systems of inequality, especially if only schools in high-income, predominantly white areas can access them.

No one is proposing that we rely on venture capitalism to improve our schools. Schools will improve our schools, in part through the traditional and digital education materials that they purchase. The funding model behind the organizations that offer these materials is immaterial.

No one idea, product or organization will be able fix it alone. This is the danger of the capitalist, winner-takes-all hero mindset. It hardwires self-interest within us, a self-interest that made me want to work in Silicon Valley. I wanted to be a 21st-century knowledge worker, and I wanted to hit it big by doing something cool in technology. Blinded by my own privilege, self-interest got the best of me. I focused too much on success in the education technology world and, as a result, began to lose fulfillment in the day-to-day of teaching. I felt disconnected and disempowered, and it was because I lost perspective on what really mattered.

We need to let go of the self-interest that capitalism has instilled in us. We need to work together and support each other, not perpetuate a theory laden with privilege for the purpose of capital gain.

In actuality, it’s the system that’s broken—not necessarily the people in it. I met incredible, intelligent people in Silicon Valley: teachers who were passionate, creative, and knowledgeable; technologists who thought radically differently than I did and pushed my thinking about what was possible in the classroom. But privilege and a capitalist mindset clouded our understanding of which problems really need to be solved in education.

It’s a well known adage in Silicon Valley to “fail fast.” As I tell my students, there’s nothing wrong with failing and being wrong, as long as you make a change and avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly. Education technology needs to learn from its mistakes, and I believe that getting back in touch with the principles of human-centered design will help education enthusiasts get back in touch with what really matters in schools. After all, people who know better, do better.

The central purpose of personalized learning–as implemented by educators, not providers of educational materials–is to get in touch with human-centered principles.

To be fair, educators also need to learn from their failures. One example is elementary reading. There’s clear research that shows how intervention can work best to help struggling readers. But too many reading teachers instead choose a “whole language” model that’s proven to be less effective.

It’s a flawed approach to criticize the new thing without taking a hard look at how well the old thing is working (or not).

To France’s original question, is personalized learning a problem of privilege? In my view no. Implemented well, personalizing learning offers the promise of helping to level the playing field, not tilt it.

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ST{R}E(A)M[S]

Middle Run, White Clay Creek State Park, DESTEM–the combined educational disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics–“was first ‘coined’ as an educational term by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early 2000s.” [William E. Dugger, circa 2011]

Of course, science and math have long been part of the school curriculum. STEM, then, arose out of the desire to apply science and math in the form of technology and engineering.

More recently, a move has been afoot to introduce a more creative element to STEM in the form of Art. The result, alternately designated STE(A)M (somewhat patronizingly, I contend) or STEAM. Two sites that elaborate on this introduction are STEM to STEAM and STEAM Not STEM. As STEAM Not STEM’s home page suggests, the addition of Art is both for its value and to stave off the decline of art in our K-12 curriculum.

I’m on board with the spirit behind STEM and equally on board with the spirit by the extension to STEAM. But at some point, we run the risk of diluting the attention we’re attempting to draw.

With STEAM, do we really mean to exclude Reading/Literacy (the R in the titular STREAMS) and Social Studies (the S)? And once we include them (and foreign language, and electives, and …), aren’t we just talking education as a whole?

Everyone Knows that Ed Tech is Expensive. But is it?

Education technology offers the promise of better outcomes at lower cost. Lower cost? How can that be–networks and devices and software come at real expense.

If ed tech can enable these better outcomes while allowing a higher student:teacher ratio, and if the savings in personnel more than offsets the cost of the ed tech itself, then its a win on both fronts.

So what does ed tech cost?

For the past 20 years, I’ve served a town in the Boston Metrowest region as a Finance Committee member, a School Committee member, and a technology task force member. As such, I’ve had a front row seat to the implementation of ed tech in a small district (of fewer than 3,000 students).

Over the span of the last 10 years, the district has moved from a relatively ad hoc deployment of ed tech to a much more thoughtfully developed, streamlined, and integrated system.

  • The first step in this modernization was the development of a network infrastructure. A data center at the high school connects to the Internet and via optical fiber to the other four buildings in the district.
  • The second step was the distribution of laptop computers to the educators and the provision of professional development to support their use.
  • The third step was the rollout of a student one-to-one computing initiative. First at the high school level (laptops) and this year at the middle school level (Chromebooks), each student is issued a device.
  • Step four is currently in its early stages: the deployment of instructional technology on top of the infrastructure layer.

A reader might be forgiven for thinking, “Of course the leafy and relatively affluent suburbs of Metrowest Boston can afford an effort like this, but what about school districts with fewer resources?”

Before taking that stance, it’s worth examining what the effort outlined above actually costs.

The budget shows a technology expense just into 7 figures. Yes, that puts us in “million” territory. And this is only for a small district–what about large cities like Lowell or New Bedford or Worcester or Springfield or Boston?

Let’s dive into the numbers. The budgeted ed tech operating cost for the 2015-2016 school year comes in at $1.04M. Add an allocation of ed tech capital at $130k and the total approaches $1.2M.

Expensive, right?

Not exactly. Here’s how that $1.2M breaks down on a per student basis.

  • Ed tech staff: $180
  • Software: $35
  • Equipment: $200
  • Other expenses: $30
  • TOTAL: $445

There are several caveats worth noting. Were the district to expand one-to-one to the elementary level, costs will go up. As the district expands instructional technology, software will go up. So let’s allow for $600/student/year.

What does the district spend overall in a year? A bit more than $16,000 per student. As such, the future ed tech spend represents a bit less than 4% of the total budget.

Meaningful? Yes. But bank-breaking? No, especially if an outcome of the technology deployment allows a higher student:teacher ratio.

 

A promise partially fulfilled

learnlaunch2015The occasion of LearnLaunch’s just-completed 3rd annual conference, “Across Boundaries: Delivering on Edtech’s Promise” (Jan 23-24, 2015, at Harvard Business School in Boston) reminded me of a white paper I’d written while at Lexia Learning almost a decade ago.

I revisit that white paper here.

Breaking through the school productivity ceiling:
the promise of education technology

Unlike almost every other field of human endeavor, education has not seen productivity gains, and as a result finds itself in a perpetual funding crisis that fundamentally limits its ability to improve student learning.

“Productivity” in the context of education merits a bit of elaboration. I originally wrote it in the literal numeric sense of students per teacher. To be sure, a graduating high school senior today knows considerably more than he or she would have a century ago.

Per pupil expenditure is an important measure of school productivity that—while admittedly not measuring relative education quality—has not increased over the last century or so. Take the teacher of the early 1900s, adjust that teacher’s salary for inflation, factor in class sizes that if anything have gone down, and acknowledge that productivity has at best been flat.

I don’t have a source at my fingertips, but I recall coming across statistics showing average high school class sizes in the 1900s being on the order of 40+ versus sub-25 today. And this article from the right-leaning Newsbusters uses Census Bureau data to show a 40% decrease in class size (and therefore productivity) since 1960.

Education technology that will deliver a combination of instruction, practice, and assessment has for years offered the promise of breaking the productivity ceiling.

By “combination,” I was referring to what I call “closed loop” adaptive instructional technology in which the technology itself serves up the next piece of learning based on how the prior piece of learning was received. This is in no way an argument for the removal of the teacher from the loop.

One model is to allow students to work with engaging and effective technology in a relatively unsupervised setting while freeing up a smaller number of teachers (through normal attrition) to work with smaller groups where their expertise is most valuable.

 As an aside, I see educational technology as being the combination of “platform” technology (network infrastructure, hardware, operating and learning management systems, and office and other productivity tools) and “instructional” technology (software that instructs).

Advances in the pedagogy underlying software content coupled with the evolution of hardware and infrastructure allow that promise to be realized within the next five years for any school district willing to pilot and then implement a technology-centric educational system.

Five years would have been 2010, and sadly, we didn’t quite get there. That said, in 2010, numerous examples of instructional technology existed, and the number has only increased since. Upon re-reading, “technology-centric educational system” was poorly phrased. “Technology-powered” or “technology-enabled” would have been far better.

These school districts have the potential to substantially alleviate their funding crises for at least the near and perhaps into the medium term.

In brief, here’s the model. If a teacher with a class of 25 students using conventional approaches can use technology to get better educational outcomes with a class of 30 students, there would be a cost reduction of 20% (less the added technology cost, of course). To put the numbers in perspective, consider that districts in the Metrowest area outside of Boston spend more than $16,000 per student, and that on the order of 2/3 of this cost is in the form of teacher compensation. Call that $10,000. A 20% savings would be more than enough to cover the cost of platform and instructional technology.

To realize this success, a relatively narrow education technology path is necessary.
a. The technology path cannot add operational costs in the form of IT staffing.

Actually, that’s not really the case–the cost of added IT staffing just needs to be factored into the overall cost picture.

b. The evolution of networks and network security are making school software implementations more rather than less complex, driving up the need for unacceptable IT staffing.

Given the many platform and instructional technology options facing schools, complexity is certainly part of the landscape. As the next point outlines, however, the web-based nature of these options dramatically reduces the potential IT burden.

c. Web applications (including “light” downloads with Web-stored data) get away from the expensive and not always reliable network model by putting the implementation burden on the software publisher and not the school district or its IT staff.

d. To date, the relative unavailability of reliable-enough Internet connectivity has slowed the movement from network-based applications to web-based applications.

Contradicting the next point, connectivity continues to be a problem.

e. However, the connectivity problem is diminishing reasonably quickly over time.

f. The viability of Web applications will enable an education technology-driven school model that will improve outcomes and decrease cost. Print and software publishers that fail to embrace this model will lose importance over time as measured in single digit years.

 I probably wasn’t too far off here. The big publishers, having seen their textbook “empires” put at significant risk, have been investing heavily in educational technology. Whether this investment (in the form of internal development and external acquisition) will be enough to allow them to maintain their market share remains to be seen.

Learn Launch conference delivers fantastic conversation on digital learning

boston-skyline
Boston-based LearnLaunch‘s second annual conference (agenda here, but perhaps not permanently–also here as a PDF) brought together educators, students, entrepreneurs, industry participants, researchers, and other thought leaders to brainstorm on the question “How can Edtech scale student success?

The event was first-rate. LearnLaunch adroitly used the late Friday afternoon and Saturday calendar slots to allow attendance by many luminaries from the Boston education scene and numerous locales beyond. I came away with new connections, new ways of thinking about the challenges facing education and the approaches that might overcome these challenges, … and new ideas for blog topics. Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore some of these ideas.

My short answer to the conference question: Edtech can scale student success by delivering effective offerings to schools equipped to receive those offerings. In my most recent post, I touched on the second half of this success–schools needing the infrastructure to implement effective offerings. I’d like to use the current post to address the offerings themselves.

What makes for a better educational offering? I’ll argue that it’s a product or service that improves outcomes, reduces cost, or both. With digital educational offerings, there’s a clear path to doing both.

IMPROVING OUTCOMES: We learn best when we’re engaged. A key element of engagement is being appropriately challenged–not bored, not overwhelmed. In a classroom of 25 students, it’s impractical for a teacher to have every student engaged. Impractical, that is, without the right tools. Well-designed software offers the promise of providing this challenge-level engagement, allowing the teacher to take a step back and apply his or her talents where they’re most needed.

Are critical developments needed to create software delivering on this promise across the spectrum of student ages and curricular needs? No doubt. But are there examples of where this software exists today? Also no doubt–to wit, see Lexia Lexia Reading Core 5 (reading), Symphony Math (math), Harvard’s EcoMUVE (science), and McGraw-Hill’s MuzzyLane-developed Government in Action (social studies), to name just a few.

REDUCING COST: Teachers spend their time in many ways: preparation, collaboration, instruction, assessment, professional development, communication, and tending to various supervisory and administrative tasks. As it has in so many other fields, technology should be able to free up teacher time in most if not all of these areas.

Consider three possible examples of technology-enabled time saving:

Example 1: An elementary school teacher’s 2nd grade class increases from 20 to 25 students. Rather than dilute his time, the teacher rotates groups of 5 students through sessions with reading or math skill development software.

The software presents each student individually with instruction in the form of video or animation. The student practices what she has learned. In the background, the software assesses her responses, diagnoses her needs, and presents her with the next piece of instruction … all at a pace and challenge level matched to her needs.

While each group of 5 students interacts with the software, the teacher continues his work with the remainder of the class. The number of students served increases by 25% with no added staff. In effect, time is saved.

Example 2: A middle school teacher prepares for professional development. Instead of the one size fits all brand of in-service PD (and sometimes the need to travel to receive it), however, she accesses the course content online at a time and place that fits her schedule. Like the student in Example 1 above, she learns at a pace that works for her. A savings of even half an hour a week adds up to valuable time over the course of a school year. But her PD isn’t just available outside of class. It’s also available in short “sound bites” she can hear or read in the classroom in the context of a specific student’s need.

Example 3: A high school English and Language Arts teacher starts his year with a new energy. Why? A new system helps him grade the 100 papers submitted by his 4 classes of 25 students for every assignment. Students check their papers into the school’s learning management system (LMS). The teacher checks his dashboard, sees that 5 students haven’t turned in their work, and triggers a reminder message, avoiding having to track down missing items.

The teacher runs a first-pass grading utility that assesses the papers for spelling and grammar. He takes a second pass himself to judge each student’s style and quality of writing, making comments inline as he goes. Another push of a button and the papers are returned to the students. Even five minutes saved for each of the hundred papers frees up hours of teacher time.

How can Edtech scale student success? The offerings and implementations above show just several of many paths to that success.

Imagine the perfect digital learning offering

one-to-one computingFew are bigger proponents than I am of the application of digital technology to change the K-12 educational landscape. There’s a strong case to be made that technology will enable us to get better outcomes while reducing cost.

Let’s imagine that an education company has developed a suite of digital learning products spanning all grades and subject areas that does just that–learner understanding increases while the cost per learner drops.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s CEO, Linda Zecher, is certainly not alone among education company executives pursuing this vision. In an August 2013 Boston Business Journal article, she’s quoted as setting the goal of having 50% of the company’s revenue come from digital products in 2015 (up from 30% in 2013).

Setting aside the question of how digital revenue will be measured (if a product has a digital component, will its entire revenue be counted as digital?), I applaud that goal.

What I haven’t heard mentioned, however, is what I think is a major roadblock to achieving the goal, especially by 2015. Put simply, a digital education requires students to have access to a device at any time. In short, that means one-to-one computing.

The natural question to ask, then, is what fraction of schools have implemented one-to-one computing? While this data is getting a bit old, MDR/EdNet Insight’s 2011 “State of the K-12 Market” (Part III) finds that based on a survey of 300 districts, only 11 percent report having at least substantially implemented one-to-one (pp. 19-22).

  • Full implementation (5 on a scale of 1 to 5): 3.8% of districts
  • Substantial implementation (4): 6.9%
  • Partial implementation (3): 15.2%
  • Partial implementation (2): 23.8%
  • No implementation (1): 50.3%

In sum, education companies such as HMH may be ready (or readying) for digital, but their customers aren’t yet keeping up–half have no implementation whatsoever. The education companies that succeed will be the ones that offer hybrid print/technology products and services that serve districts both with and without one-to-one implementations as they collectively navigate the transition to digital.

Boston: the Hub of the (Education) Universe*

universePreface 1: Posting at least every other week hasn’t exactly worked out. Here’s a pledge to be better.

Preface 2: *With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes; per Wikipedia, “The Hub, which is a shortened form of a phrase recorded by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Hub of the Solar System. This has since developed into The Hub of the Universe.”

It took last evening’s LearnLaunch January Meetup, “International Education: Opportunity Outside the U.S.,” to drive home the title point: Boston is the hub of the education universe.

“Boston is the home of more than 240 startups,” commented panelist, LearnLaunch co-founder, and Boston EdTech fixture Hakan Satiroglu. “But we’ve got more startups,” you might expect the Bay Area to cry. “And perhaps you do.” Boston (and Cambridge) venture capital to go with those startups? Check. “Yeah, yeah, Bay Area, we know.”

How about large education companies? Bay Area, nada. New York City could perhaps make a claim here, but Boston has headquarters or major presences in Cengage, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson, and School Specialty. Scholastic? Not exactly, but their Tom Snyder Productions division calls Watertown home. Small and midsize players? Check: Cambium Learning Technologies, Curriculum Associates, Lexia Learning, MuzzyLane, Six Red Marbles, and many others.

On the academic front. Massachusetts K-12 education leads the nation and ranks high amongst the best nations on the planet. Oh, and just to slather some icing on the cake, let’s not forget higher education. This fact may not be widely known, but the Hub is home to one or two (or more than 50) colleges and universities, some of which you may even have heard of.

“A jaunty-looking person … said there was one more wise man’s saying that he had heard; it was about our place—but he didn’t know who said it … ‘Boston State-House is the Hub of the Solar System. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crow-bar.'” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table