Personalized Learning Is Not a Product

For all the hype surrounding so-called “personalized learning,” plenty of skeptics worry that it could do more harm than good—especially within the context of larger trends in academia. They worry that, among other things, personalized learning products will be used not to improve student learning, but as cheaper and “good enough” replacements for faculty labor. Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University – Pueblo, articulated this worry in a recent blog post:

Look at this situation from as administrator’s point of view. If they buy these expensive computer programs, where will they get the money to pay for them? At cash-strapped schools the inevitable justification will be because it can save labor costs. Computerized teachers, computerized scoring—these days computers will even tell students whether they’re on the most efficient path towards graduation, thereby eliminating the need for advisors. Sometimes it seems as if every aspect of modern universities that can be mechanized has been mechanized. Why would actual teaching be any different?

He’s right. There is no question that, at some level, these sorts of calculations happen all the time. For example, large lecture classes have been able to grow even larger in part because of the availability of machine-graded quiz scoring. Personalized learning technologies are not immune from this sort of thinking.

While Professor Rees doesn’t dispute that technology has the potential to improve education, he does argue that switching out faculty expertise in favor of software will inevitably hurt education:

Making this kind of switch depends upon advocates of technology changing the definition of what education is. The classes where we attended college depended upon prolonged interaction between the instructor and the students. Even in the largest classes that we took, professors took questions before, during and after their lectures. If we were feeling shy, there was ample opportunity to visit professors or our teaching assistants in office hours to work through whatever problems we had in the material. Our papers were graded by human beings who explained why we earned the grades we did. It is through these kinds of exchanges that the most intense learning happens, the ones where habits of mind are set and where inclinations develop into skills that students can employ not just in other classes, but for the rest of their lives (long after they’ve forgotten what their undergraduate professors’ names happened to be).

His argument is that, if we really believe that personalization improves education, then removing the persons from the educational equation defeats the purpose. Once again, he is right. What we’ve learned from the folks we interviewed in the e-Literate TV case studies bear that out. For starters, they didn’t just drop in technology and hope that it would do the job. Rather, they created course designs that have clear and significant faculty roles. For example, at Essex County College (ECC) in Newark, NJ, faculty have an essential coaching role in a personalized learning approach called Self-Regulated Learning (SRL):

And yet, ECC discovered that this approach is even more dependent on expert faculty for success than the college initially realized. In its first year, the redesigned course did not move the needle on outcomes. ECC’s Vice President for Planning, Research, and Assessment Doug Walercz attributes those results to several major factors. First, the college initially used some graduate students mixed in with experienced faculty to teach sections of the course. Second, not all of the experienced faculty believed in the approach. And finally, even experienced faculty who believed in the approach were not trained in how to be coaches in the class. As Dr. Walercz said to us,

Good teachers deliver a multi-dimensional learning experience, and the experience usually revolves around the content. When I say multi-dimensional, I mean that while the teacher is delivering the content, she is also assessing prior knowledge, building a positive classroom climate, establishing (high) goals for student performance, developing metacognition, dividing complex knowledge into manageable pieces, providing motivation for learning, and helping organize knowledge around key features. And all of these threads are woven into the lecture and discussion that comprises the classroom experience.

Adopting a system like ALEKS moves the content from the professor to the software, and effectively removes the primary vehicle that used to carry essential dimensions of the learning experience. The software is great at delivering content, assessing prior knowledge, and dividing complex knowledge into manageable pieces, but it is not good at classroom climate, goal setting, metacognition, motivation, and organizing knowledge around key features. And our instructors don’t know how to deliver these threads outside of a content-driven lesson.

In order to get good results from personalized learning products, ECC needs experienced faculty who believe in what they are doing and have had some professional development in how to teach. Even great software is not magic. If you want magic in the classroom, you need a great teacher. At its best, the software gives the magician a wand to work with. But as we learned from a great Disney movie, a magic wand wielded by a sorcerer’s apprentice generally does not produce the intended results.

This is a lesson that is usually missed in the talk about successes with personalized learning products, but it’s always there if you read closely. Embedded in just about every efficacy press release or case study by Pearson, McGraw-Hill, or any of the other vendors is a story about course redesign and a quote from a faculty member about how he or she was able to do new things with their students because the software frees them up from certain tasks (like lecturing). And yet, the vast majority of faculty are not trained in designing and teaching courses like these. Schools are spending literally millions of dollars to not only license software products but also to build computer labs where students take software-centric classes. We are not seeing the same level of investment in the professional development of faculty as teachers and course designers. And yet, skilled teachers seem to be a critical success factor for personalized learning.

It’s important to note that this issue is not about class size. We have seen personalized learning software used effectively to teach very large classes, such as ASU’s Habitable Worlds course. It is possible to achieve quality at scale, at least in some cases for some courses. But every time we have seen it achieved, there has been a clear and crucial role for skilled and trained teachers in the design and implementation of the course.

Bottom line: Personalized learning is not a product you can buy. It is a strategy that good teachers can implement. Without good teachers and good strategy, even a great product designed for personalized learning applications has limited value and, in the worst case, can actually do more harm than good.

Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill are co-publishers of the e-Literate blog, co-producers of e-Literate TV, and Partners at MindWires Consulting.

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