EventApril 7 2016

Enabling Connected Learning Workshop on Personalized Learning

9:30 am
Data & Society

A round table took place on April 7, 2016 at Data & Society Research Institute. Eighteen researchers, educators, consultants, and journalists joined to engage in conversation about the state of education, the influence of technology in the education space, and the value sets driving efforts of educators, legislators, and policy makers. A summary of the conversation follows.


There is an assumption among education reformers that there’s a problem with schools. Throughout US history, the assumption that schools are broken has been a constant but current iterations of the assumption blame that failure on teachers. Furthermore, opportunities of monitoring and surveillance are emerging in schools. One of the main issues is that there is a lack of consensus about who should be making decisions about learning, evidenced by the large number of groups answering these questions. Using personalized learning as a case study, this leads to the following questions: How are these questions answered? What is missing? What is true and promising and what from learning theory or outside networks could improve or support it? In response to these questions, discussion centered on five interconnected topics:  (1) the factory model of education; (2) differentiation/equity; (3) building equity into technological systems; (4) the values of schooling; and (5) barriers to interventions.


Factory Model of Education

A common trope in personalized learning conversations is that personalized learning is a reaction to a factory model of education. Although round table members concluded that the one-size-fits-all idea isn’t quite accurate, Taylorism was indeed the model for the organization of production. This model worked for equity of access but not for other goals, providing an example of methods imported from other industries into education that haven’t quite worked out as planned. There is also a trend in technology to resist bureaucracy. The idea being that middle managers of all forms need to be replaced with something more fair and neutral, like automating management. This broader frame leads to questions about the way the educator’s role is conceptualized. Is an educator just a manager of knowledge production? What is the frame of what we think we are replacing?



There are tensions for university faculty between meeting the goals of the college as a whole and their educational values. This tension also occurs within personalized learning technology. The term “personalized learning” has the connotation of something that is very nuanced, but in practice it becomes bureaucratized. In order to meet an achievable goal, the definition of success must be standardized. People are trying to move away from the factory model’s reliance on cohorts in which groups are assessed the exact same way and move along together by shrinking the grain size through personalization. In essence, personalization is intended to reduce the unit of analysis and group students based on more nuanced details, but using some sort of grouping is unavoidable.


The tracking narrative in the US is hierarchal – the good, mediocre, and bad students must be sorted. Further complicating thinking about equity in education is the idea that equity has different meanings in different contexts. Community colleges provide an interesting example. Many community college students are working adults with obligations who are unable to make school their top priority, so they selectively choose online class. Unfortunately, data over the past five years has shown that this leads to impaired learning compared to face-to-face instruction.  However, there is opportunity for technical systems to empower people to do meaningful interventions. In the crisis text line, patterns of writing that serve as indicators of risk can be analyzed by the system which empowers the counselor to intervene. Similarly, technology in schools can be harnessed to empower teachers to intervene with students who are most in need. The question remains as to what the education system is really differentiating for. Is the end goal graduation rates and success rates for accreditation? There is a desire for equity but an end goal of mass competency does not meet equitable goals of promoting greater agency.


Equity in education has typically been thought of in terms of access, and is oftentimes unaddressed within education technology conversation. However, round table participants felt that edtech publishers had extracted a “rhetoric of equity and fairness” from privileged parents demanding that their child receive specialized attention. The hierarchal tracking narrative didn’t come about until the college attendance became the norm. After this, parents of gifted children adopted the rhetoric of special education students because they were both “special,” just in different ways.  As a result, edtech publishers frame their products as a tool for helping meet students where they’re at to help them all get to the same level. The irony of this is that if these privileged parents’ children are performing well, they’ll wind up receiving less attention because they will get through easier and faster.



How can we begin to build equity in technological systems?

In order to begin to build equity, the following questions need to be asked about the inputs as well as the outputs: Who is involved? Are any of those involved the stakeholders or those most in need of equity? Who has voice in the design of the technology? What kinds of development and design processes are engaged with? One option is for teachers to collaborate and come to a consensus about what content works and how it needs to be changed, rather than companies responding to market forces. Although involving all relevant stakeholders is theoretically ideal, in reality those involved end up being the ones with money, skill, and competence. This produces a false sense of buy-in. A proposed solution is to make the values baked into systems transparent, but technological literacy does not offer more choice in education – people are not going to pull their kids out of school based on the technology the school is using.


The drivers of change in education have shifted, and with that the values shift. Rather than academics and educators driving the school boards, politicians drive them. Rather than former educators on school boards, there are now politicians. In addition, those creating technology are guided by assumptions from the tech world. For example, the logic of open source hasn’t translated to education. When teachers are asked what they want to do with the data, they come up with things that are already apart of the systems they’re using – they’re just replicating the system because that’s what worked for them.


What are the values of schooling?

The purpose of education might vary across contexts and actors. For example, in communications departments, the faculty are trained to do research and minimal teaching. This leads to a disconnect – faculty are not passionate about teaching. Similar tensions in motivations across actors might be occurring in other educational spaces but people aren’t willing to be honest about how the system is structured. In the US, the notion of meritocracy guides practice although it is flawed, problematic, and not reflective of the reality of a place where opportunity is often shaped by where and to whom you are born. Technology often times mirrors and magnifies systems, rather than fixing them. School also serves as a place to develop citizenship – children learn how to be citizens and are socialized through schooling.


Barriers to intervention

Barriers to intervention include unclear definitions of terminology and differing motivations. Personalized learning is a term that has been hyped without any purposeful strategy. The term is used on the fly by different communities with different motivations, making healthy conversation difficult. Parents and teachers focus is on the next year, which makes discussion of radical long-term change difficult. One method that is used in Japan is one in which teachers identify a problem for action, brainstorm together, and come up with test lessons that they implement. Throughout the process, the teachers watch each other and engage in cycles of inquiry. However, trial and error is not welcomed by stakeholders in education.


Main questions and priorities

The session concluded with exploration of what the main priorities and questions should be addressed. The priorities stated were: providing precision and definition for discussions of personalized learning, tracking the difference between perceived versus actual benefits, providing examples of how tech can represent different visions of education, develop an understanding of how the systems work, making research useful, and including the voices of children.


In summary, the conversation centered on exploring how different values and assumptions about the purpose of education can lead in different directions. Participants highlighted the conflicts inherent with attempting to achieve equity without a clear understanding of the values driving current educational practices. Would involving a more diverse set of voices in the development processes of technology move us towards the goal of equity or would it act as a false indicator of buy-in? How do the ways we understand identity formation influence our inclusion of student voices in these conversations? How are systems of oppression being built into and magnified by technological systems?

This summary was written by Mikaela Pitcan.

Attendees included: danah boyd, Monica Bulger, Dixie Ching, Heather Collins, Jade E. Davis, Claire Fontaine, Maxwell Foxman, Steven Hodas, Anya Kamenetz, Mary Madden, Alexandra Mateescu, Patrick McCormick, Mikaela Pitcan, Rafi Santo, Neil Selwyn, Natasha Singer, and Elana Zeide.