Public Educators Share Fallout on Personalized Learning, Privatization...

Personalized Learning

Public Educators Share Fallout on Personalized Learning, Privatization and Edtech

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 16, 2017

Public Educators Share Fallout on Personalized Learning, Privatization and Edtech

This article is part of the guide The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

Educators from around the U.S. gathered in Oakland this past weekend for the Network for Public Education’s (NPE) national conference, where several sessions centered around a common theme: protecting public education amid an era of federal budget cuts and concerns over the increased presence of technology in classrooms.

After an opening keynote from NPE president Diane Ravitch, the conference started with a talk Saturday morning led by Mark Miller, former president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association; Leonie Haimson, the Executive Director of Class Size Matters; and Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association. The speakers all pressed that digital learning, and in particular online charter schools, are falling short for students and teachers.

“There has been a huge explosion of online learning and edtech in our schools… and online education is privatizing education through for-profit companies and their apps,” said Haimson. “But the reality is that online learning has not progressed really far.”

In particular, Haimson, who is also the co-chair Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, called attention to the “hype” around personalized learning, often described as a technology-based education model that aims to allow individual students to be able to learn at their preferred pace and instructional method. “This Orwellian phrase of ‘personalized learning’ is taking away human contact in education,” she said.

Personalized learning has become a particular point of passion for major philanthropists and tech executives, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Haimson charges that Summit Schools, a personalized learning-based charter network financially bolstered by Facebook, focuses more on screen time than actual learning of human interaction. Students and teachers using these programs, she alleges, “don’t get any personal time at all.”

Haimson also said many of the Summit parents she has spoken with cite issues with their child’s learning. The presentation included quotes by some of these parents, such as: “Within weeks my son started coming home from school upset and didn’t want to go to school. He said that he didn’t like being taught by a computer and sitting in front of a computer watching videos and taking notes all day. He was basically in charge of his own education at the age of 12.”

The speakers pointed to a 2017 study out of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which suggests that effects on both reading (-0.10) and math (-0.25) performance decreased for students in virtual charter schools regardless of what network they a part of. “Virtual charter schools don’t work for most kids,” the report reads.

Other studies offer "modest" optimism around technology’s role, however. A study by the RAND Corporation this year found “new evidence to suggest that customizing instruction for every student can generate modest gains in math and reading scores,” Education Week reported. The report also cited challenges for personalized learning, and warns that its popularity “far outpaces its evidence base.” But Haimson underscored there are “so many issues with the [RAND] studies,” such as how “there is no definition of personalized learning,” which the study attempts to measure.

Haimson is stark with her position on the matter: “I’m totally on the record about being against this stuff.” But she and the other speakers also said there is a time in place in which their opinions might soften. “We are not saying online learning is a bad thing—it’s good in moderation and when it’s used responsibly,” said Kilfoyle.

Haimson said that successful implementation often requires smaller class size, plus working with “kids who are self-motivated, easy learners and have support.” For those with less resources or support, she said “the myth [about personalized learning technology] is that it will narrow the achievement gap, but it will actually increase the achievement gaps.”

Later in a lunchtime keynote session, Roxana Marachi, an associate professor of education at San Jose State University, echoed some of the morning’s sentiments.

“I’m not against [all] tech. It’s the exploitation by tech that is taking data from our students and doing harm but saying it’s success.” In particular, Marachi, who studies social and emotional well-being for students and how technology affects students’ health, criticizes what she sees as the headlong dash to adopt devices and software without fully understanding their potential and limitation.

“There is a lack of research [on education technology]… We are putting technology in schools before we know these are working.” Marachi claims the most vulnerable targets are low-income areas, such as communities near her university in San Jose, which is scattered by tech-heavy charters like Rocketship Schools. She also described one charter school proposed to open near San Jose where only two out of 21 intended edtech programs were listed as having been studied for their effectiveness.

Additionally, “the majority of research is saying that cyber charters are tremendously problematic and are targeting low-income communities,” Marachi said.

Janelle Scott, a chancellor’s associate professor at UC Berkeley, provided extra context to their arguments during the lunchtime keynote: “[Privatization in education] is operating in a state of education disinvestment.” She stressed that “there is a reason families are choosing” alternatives like charter schools, virtual schools and technology, “even if they are not the ideal.”

But Scott also pointed out that “there are people who are very happy with their charter schools,” and encouraged “a way to bring them into the critical conversations.”

This article previously stated that a charter school in San Jose implemented 21 edtech programs and only two had studies on their effectiveness. It has been updated to reflect that was a proposed charter school, and its edtech programs have not been implemented.

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