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Personalized learning is not about technology

One of the big ideas in education these days is "personalized learning". There are myriad ed-tech startups launching apps that support this approach and schools redesigning their classrooms to take advantage of these ideas.

As with a lot of shiny new things, there are gems of innovation hidden behind the smoke and mirror buzzwords. But the key is implementation, there is no magic app that can eliminate the need for supported teachers.

In fact, the focus on the technology is a distraction. It can be a great force-multiplier but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to create the foundation for truly personalized learning.

first off, what exactly is personalized learning?

The average student doesn't actually exist. It's a virtual statistical shorthand to refer to a group of students. The result is that the "one size fits all" focus on educating this non-existent average kid really ends up being "one size fits no-one".

The students who are comfortable with the particular topic get bored and the kids who are struggling don't actually get the attention they need. The students with the more academically supportive family and individual contexts tend to learn how to play the game and end up doing okay.

But those students who get stuck on the negative side of that feedback loop never recover. The focus on the average forces the lower performing kids to perform worse and worse and throttles the performance of the more advanced kids.

With the basic personalized learning approach, every student is presented with the information that they individually need. If Johnny is having trouble with fractions but Helen doesn't quite get square roots then that's the material they focus on.

In the ideal situation, the teacher becomes a tutor and coach to help kids through specific problems rather than presenting core material. It's a very time and resource intensive approach and technology can certainly help a great deal.

So, what is wrong with that?

The problem with the current approach to personalized learning in ed-tech is that vendors get too wrapped up with the "tech" part of that. In particular they tend to focus on delivery of personalized content. That becomes an end unto itself rather than a tool that supports a thoughtful approach.

However the core idea behind effective personalized learning is not so much the delivery of the subject matter but rather an accurate assessment of the current situation of the student. Both in terms of the student's understanding of the subject matter but also other factors that may affect learning such as attendance or family challenges.

The way for personalized learning to succeed is to focus on this data gathering aspect so that educators have a more holistic view of the student. The more fully the situation of the student is understood, the more precisely the teaching approach and the specific subject matter can be tailored.

Technology can certainly help with that a great deal but with a thorough data picture of the student, a teacher can improve the effectiveness of even a traditional classroom.

For example, if the teacher has more information about their students they will be able to address weaknesses that different groups of kids are having. Maybe they can adjust their lesson plan to review topics that the majority of students are struggling with. Or they can pair students with complementary strengths and weaknesses.

However without this data aware approach, even the best delivery technology will be useless to address any achievement gap.

Final Thoughts

A turn-key personalized learning solution or platform is certainly going to help but only if you have the data supports to inform it. Without a thoughtful approach and a carefully planned data gathering strategy, these personalized learning solutions just turn into yet another empty promise.

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