The uncomfortable truth about personalized learning


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It’s an uncomfortable truth. Technology can improve teaching.

What is most interesting to me about the debate around technology in the classroom – particularly technology that can personalize learning – is that there is a debate at all. Personalized learning technology is certainly changing the way we’re thinking about teaching and learning. Yet, too much of the current discussion pits technology against instructors in an extreme, futuristic narrative that evokes images of robots edging out educators like former auto factory workers. Some detractors have gone so far to accuse personalized learning – and technology in education more broadly – of being part of a dark, nefarious plot to funnel public monies between connected policy makers and corporations.

Finding the right balance

A better question to ask here is how teachers and personalizing technology can fit together in a sustainable relationship. We can’t allow the uncertainty and the discomfort that comes with periods of change to sidetrack us from one of the greatest opportunities in the history of education to use technology to improve learning outcomes. When it comes to education, we need to do what’s best for the kids – not what makes the adults feel most comfortable.

Basic Calculations

This isn’t the first time that technological advances in education have created apprehension. In Phaedrus, Plato quotes Socrates’ concern that the advent of books and the practice of writing would destroy education by discouraging students’ use of their own memories. And when McGraw-Hill first started publishing textbooks in the late 1800s, some who were concerned that these books would render instructors obsolete because they contained all of the information students would need to master. Obviously, these concerns sound absurd now, and I can’t help but wonder if 10 years, the concerns about personalized education technology will sound equally trivial.

The reality is that professors have been personalizing education for centuries, using different teaching strategies to reach different students as individuals. Fortunately, advancements in education technology – specifically, some of the recent developments in adaptive learning – are helping instructors provide personalized instruction more efficiently and effectively than ever before and in ways that increase student engagement and improve outcomes.

Teachers don’t go away

But we still come back to the question of what is the role of the instructor in the new personalized learning environments?

How often have we heard that, with the help of technology, instructors are transitioning from the role of lecturer to “learning facilitator”? I think that is a gross simplification of where the teaching profession is headed and of technology’s “value add.”

As we move toward this new paradigm of personalized instruction, instructors have an unprecedented opportunity to redefine their roles and scale personalized education like never before. But this isn’t about educating more students with fewer teachers. This is about educating the students we already have, with the teachers we already have, more successfully.

Image (4) stock-teacher.jpg for post 31543Teachers today and in the future will need the following three skills to fully take advantage of the possibilities that personalized learning will bring in the classroom:

  1. Real-time data analysis. As Karen Cator, the former director of the Office of Educational Technology of the U.S. Department of Education, said at the White House’s Datapalooza event last year, data is the “rocket fuel” powering personalization in education. Technology is giving us more data, more quickly. While student performance data has always been available to instructors through homework assignments and assessments, today’s technology collects data as students are learning – on a constant or near-constant basis – providing instant feedback on individual student performance to educators, enabling them to spot and correct problems sooner.
  2. Personalized instruction. In traditional classrooms, instructors often “teach to the middle,” delivering a set curriculum that is generally designed for the average student. In the digital, personalized classroom, instructors have better awareness of what students know and where they are struggling, and can adapt their instruction accordingly. Being able to understand the variety of needs in a classroom and adapt the daily classroom lectures, activities and interactions to meet those needs is critically important, especially as instructors are increasingly working with students who have different learning abilities and backgrounds.
  3. Classroom management. In the personalized classroom, instructors and professors are freed from paperwork and busywork –the more mundane tasks of the classroom that take away from actual teaching time. The time they gain can be spent giving students more individual attention and support.

When personalized classrooms work well, it is hard to argue against their success. I believe we are reaching a “when, not if” moment in the personalized education movement. However, we need to do a few things to move it forward:

  • Acknowledge and validate educators’ concerns while managing the change. No piece of technology can replace an instructor, nor should it. An instructor inspires and motivates students and imparts knowledge in special, unrivaled ways. But technology has a place in a classroom too. Technology, at its best, can make good instructors great. It’s a symbiotic – not a mutually exclusive – relationship. If the change happens properly, teaching won’t become automated, as some fear, and teachers won’t lose anything. Rather, teachers will see significant gains: They will gain real-time insights into how their students learn and, with fewer manual tasks, they will gain additional time to engage personally with their students and do what they do best: teach.
  • Have a real conversation about technology’s promise and define terms. Not all technology is created equal, and tablets alone cannot make a classroom personalized or help instructors employ data-driven instruction. Likewise, adaptive learning technology is becoming an overused, almost empty term. Educators should ensure that the technology they adopt can actually facilitate personalized learning, not just interactivity or games.
  • Provide the support instructors need. We cannot demand a seismic shift in education and assume that instructors and professors are ready for it, technologically speaking. We owe it to our educators to ensure they not only have access to today’s technology but also know how to use it effectively and receive ongoing professional development.

If we are to truly re-imagine and revolutionize education, we cannot operate from a place of fear – or apathy. We need to put down our defenses, swallow our pride and take a leap forward. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be comfortable. Change never is. But 100 years from now, do we really want future generations looking back and wondering why, as a society and industry, we squandered one of the most powerful would-be revolutions in education? That is the most uncomfortable fate of all.

Stephen Laster is Chief Digital Officer at McGraw-Hill Education.



I think it is a complicated task to find the perfect mix of technology in the classroom. I think that there are great tools out there that allow teachers to do integrate technology in the classroom without having it be overbearing. I think one I just found is It is a tool that allows teachers to teach but when it comes time to test it allows for students to get the technology bit in and take a quiz in an environment they feel comfortable. It also looks really cool.

Matt Lombardi

This article is a classic example of a straw-man argument. The notion that technology facilitates learning isn’t an “uncomfortable truth.” The uncomfortable truth is that companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill are competing with other sectors of the education field — including, most notably, teachers — for a finite amount of funding. It’s impossible to take at face value anything said by someone like Mr. Laster whose ultimate interest is maximizing profitability. In the end his own success may or may not improve education, but one thing we know for certain is that he will fight any argument that could be damaging to his bottom line, regardless of the argument’s merits.

Grant R. Shafer

Mr. Laster is a salesman. We should be skeptical of the utopian vision which he is peddling here. Sometimes technology is an improvement; sometimes it is not. For example, nuclear energy looks as if it’s more trouble than it’s worth, especially if you’re a cancer patient or a deformed child. Teachers need to assert themselves to evaluate technology and resist it when it isn’t helpful. So far, online learning has been a way to marginalize teachers and maximize corporate profits by funneling taxpayer dollars to private business with no proof that students are helped.


Can we get any links here that show some studies comparing a classroom outfitted with personalized technology versus a classroom without. This may well be true:

“When personalized classrooms work well, it is hard to argue against their success. ”

But two years ago, the New York Times ran a series looking at technology in the classroom and was, in general, underwhelmed. I’m assuming that the situation has altered dramatically, but I’d like to see more than personal testimony before I accept that as true.


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seriously! come into my classroom and watch young children press those buttons to give data… them check what the kid on either side does…. watch them guess…..and guess again
I can see it but the day the data points out who doesn’t know understand, who is cheating or guessing and who doesn’t-know-what-they’re-doing will be the day the computer programs turn in their makers for thinking one size fits all.

Bella E.

I’m interested to read an article about results of the latest personalization tech for grade schools. Even if a study is done over a limited amount of time, having positive results is what will open people’s minds.

That AND we’re going to have to invest more money in our schools to incorporate new technology. School budgets are limited as they are these days, of course it’s going to be hard to get them to adapt something that would divert funds from other needs. I hear of schools who don’t have enough books and they would likely be the ones who need these additional learning tools the most. I would guess they’re going to be the last to adopt these methods though based solely on lack of funding.

It’s not just about educating teachers, I think most teachers want to help their students learn and aren’t worried they will be replaced by technology. It’s the principals, school boards and higher ups that need to see the benefits. Teachers often want to adopt a lot of things in their classrooms but can’t because the money isn’t there for them to execute their ideas.

Nicholas Paredes

My last primary education project was as lead office on the Pearson Reading Street program, and I decided to get out of the market on a high note. In 2010 one of my projects, Eduk8 was accepted to Startl in NYC, but the reality is that the market is difficult at best to broach.

Everything in this article is pretty straight forward and as a previous post mentioned, people reading this get it. Helping kids is definitely one of the reasons that I found the education market rewarding and attractive from an intellectual stand point. It has been difficult to watch the publishers battle the all-to-apparent forces.

Hopefully, education will change drastically. Enough so that the distinction between content and instruction is blurred to be indistinguishable. I continue to watch and engage on projects incorporating data. I wish that it didn’t take a decade to see a point of opportunity.

John Duhring

The big question of scale: Will it come from millions taking videogame-like courses for badges, or from millions of classrooms worldwide creating their own learning experiences?

Robert Ranting

I find it quite ironic that the first word of the summary of an educational technology piece is misspelled!


Think about what audience you’re reaching with this article.

It is pretty clear that technology can be used to personalize learning and that this replaces teachers as much as fitness apps replace personal trainers.

I’d more interested in specific examples of how schools right now are using technology to personalize learning.

Eric Gates

Hi Approximately Stuart,

I do Implementation consulting for ALEKS, a company the author recently purchased, and I can help you there: Penn State uses ALEKS to kill heterogeneity in General Chemistry classes, in other word to make sure all students are up to speed on basic material *before* they show up in a 400 student lecture hall. That way, fewer students are incapable of following what the lecturer is saying. No teachers have disappeared, but the students and the university are getting more value from their interactions with instructional faculty:

The way ALEKS does this is remarkable, and no human could ever accomplish it for more than a few students at most. Where thousands of students are concerned (as at Penn State). this is amazingly helpful, just as the author points out:

Other schools are using ALEKS to make up for terrible practices in math education reform (see “The Faulty Logic of the Math Wars, NY Times, June 16, 2013)

So students whose high school teachers taught them that math is pretty and fun but not how to master the standard algorithms have a snowball’s chance of surviving a tough Calculus instructor at University of Illinois:

What Mr. Laster is saying isn’t obvious to many university professors, though it seems it ought to be, because they may not truly want to hear the message in every case, but the case has already been made and reproduced over and over again.

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