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This article first appeared on Educating Modern Learners

"Personalization" is certainly one of the most popular and powerful buzzwords in education technology. A lot of hope and hype has been pinned on it. But it took a bit of a hit when the National Education Policy Center released a report on "personalized instruction." Written by UCLA professor Noel Enyedy, the full title gives you a pretty good sense of what the report argues: "New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning."

Enyedy writes that,

despite the advances in both hardware and software, recent studies show little evidence for the effectiveness of this form of Personalized Instruction. This is due in large part to the incredible diversity of systems that are lumped together under the label of Personalized Instruction. Combining such disparate systems into one group has made it nearly impossible to make reasonable claims one way or the other. To further cloud the issue, there are several ways that these systems can be implemented in the classroom. We are just beginning to experiment with and evaluate different implementation models—and the data show that implementation models matter. How a system is integrated into classroom routines and structures strongly mediates the outcomes for students.

The report examines some of the recent research on instructional efficacy and on cost-savings, noting that the muddied definition of "personalized instruction" makes it difficult to really perform a solid meta-analysis. (This is a problem with "personalization" that we've examined here on EML before.) But looking across the research and at individual studies, there seems to be little evidence that "personalized instruction" "works" and when it does, writes Enyedy, "it is important to note as well that outcomes primarily reflected procedural (or how to) knowledge, not increased efficacy for declarative (informational) knowledge or strategic thinking. That is, improvements do not effectively yield the type of conceptual understanding, problem solving and complex thinking that the current economy requires."

So if education technology - or at least "personalized instruction" - doesn't really have much of an impact on education outcomes and if it doesn't really save schools money, what are we doing? Why are we spending so much money on it? Why are we, after decades of computers in the classroom, still struggling to see how technology can really transform schools?

Enyedy suggests that we need to "turn to new ways of conceptualizing the role of technology in the classroom—conceptualizations that do not assume the computer will provide direct instruction to students, but instead will serve to create new opportunities for both learning and teaching." That is, we need to move beyond "personalized instruction" and towards a focus on learning. (Learning is always "personalized," because it's always personal of course.)

Enyedy contends that we're stuck, in part, because the model of "personalized instruction" is built upon old metaphors of the personal computer from the 1980s. That is, we’re still tinkering with "adaptive learning systems" and "intelligent tutoring systems" that are decades old and designed around individualized "content delivery." That's what we're still building and still implementing: "computer-assisted instruction."

But technology today is mobile, and it is social, and it is networked. We need to rethink, reimagine how technology can enhance learning - through collaboration and connectedness, for example. We cannot simply use newer technologies to make old practices of lectures and worksheets digital. That's not enough to transform school. And as the NEPC report highlights, that doesn't work. And it doesn’t work, in part, because we know that those practices aren't the best analog pedagogy either.

Enyedy suggests that "All stakeholders should refrain from assuming that Personalized Instruction is the only model for computers in the classroom and be open to investigating new models integrating technology into the learning process."" That seems like a great place to start. But from there, I think that those who work in education technology need to be much louder and much clearer about what moving beyond personalized instruction can and should look like. What are our alternate visions for education technology?

There seems to be such a failure of imagination around ed-tech, and that's a shame - and not simply because schools are spending millions of dollars on devices and infrastructure. EML co-founder Bruce Dixon recently argued that education is caught up in a sort of "truthiness," believing that things work because they just sound like they should. That education technology can offer some sort of "personalized instruction" and that that's going to address problems of efficiency and efficacy - that's "truthiness" for sure. The challenge isn't simply to point out the flaws in the logic (the NEPC report does that well); the challenge is to provide the vision and the leadership to show how education technology can be transformational.

But that involves rethinking much of "school," not just rethinking how computers are used there.

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Audrey Watters


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