When Personalized Learning Is a Logical Fallacy

When Personalized Learning Is a Logical Fallacy

Personalized learning is not a product you can buy — it’s a set of strategies that teachers can implement, sometimes with the help of products that are designed to support those strategies. That’s an argument that my partner Phil Hill and I have argued here on EdSurge and elsewhere. But we’ve been disheartened to see a lack of interest in making that clear distinction, as evidenced most recently by the comments of a number of our colleagues in a recent Campus Technology article.

After pointing out that many of the folks who are investigating “personalized learning”—including both MindWires and EdSurge—have received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the article goes on to quote grantee after grantee saying variations of the same thing: “Meh. Personalized learning, adaptive learning, potato, potahto. The terminology doesn’t really matter.”

But this isn’t really a terminology debate. This isn’t like the argument over whether “Course Management System” is a more accurate description than “Learning Management System,” or whether “distance learning” conveys a misleading sense of the learning experience while “online learning” is more neutral. It’s not even a definitional debate, like whether a MOOC can be considered truly “open” if the content isn’t released under a Creative Commons license or if students have to pay to receive a certificate. The distinction between adaptive learning and personalized learning, between a tool and a teaching technique, is necessary to the basic logic that enables us to understand how the various parts of any teaching intervention work together to make a difference.

To get a better sense of what I’m talking about, consider a conversation I had earlier this year with two Carnegie Mellon University learning science researchers—Marsha Lovett and Ken Koedinger (partly funded by our Gates Foundation grant). Lovett is both a psychologist who studies the effectiveness of various teaching interventions and the director of the university’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. Koedinger is a noted researcher of advanced adaptive learning systems. Listen to the way that the two of them talk about these two different strains of research and how they fit together:

The single most important comment for our purposes is Lovett’s first one:

“A product cannot be evaluated outside of its educational context. The contextual factors are huge. So a product just can’t be efficacious or not. It always has to be contextualized.”

Distinguishing between talk about a product and talk about a teaching intervention matters because we care about understanding how well what we try will work with an actual set of students in an actual classroom. To evaluate the efficacy of a product independently of the actions taken by students and teachers in the context in which the product is used is to commit a logical fallacy. Specifically, it is a category error. It confuses the properties of the whole with the properties of a part.

Educational products can’t be efficacious or not. Learning interventions can, though. When Koedinger, who spends his days designing and researching adaptive tutoring software, talks about the benefits of these products, he doesn’t talk about machine learning algorithms or analytics dashboards. Instead, he talks about the kinds of educational micro-interventions the products support in the larger context of the macro-intervention that we call “the class.”

Features—what the product does—don’t matter. Affordances—what the product enables the students and educators to do—matter. And those only matter in the context of the goals that the students and educators aim to achieve. It’s those actions by teachers and students that can be measured as effective or not. Products may facilitate certain actions by students or educators that impact the efficacy of the intervention, but they are not capable of causing learning in and of themselves.

When we conflate product talk with learning-intervention talk, we lose our ability to distinguish the factors that are critical to achieving the learning outcomes we want.

Until we make this distinction clearly and consistently, we can throw unlimited amounts of money at researching, developing, and promoting the spread of educational technology and still fail to make a difference in students’ lives.

Michael Feldstein is co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, co-producer of e-Literate TV, and a Partner at MindWires Consulting.

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