The uncomfortable truth about personalized learning

teacher classroom

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.

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