Personalized Learning: Why this rising trend in education is concerning

The explosion of personalized learning in k-12 education has resulted in more than 90 percent of schools using digital tools to individualize classroom instruction, according to a recent video by Education Week Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller.

But embracing the experimental instructional approach comes with a cautionary note. “Research showing personalized learning is an effective approach for improving student learning is incomplete at best,” Bushweller said. “Studies of specific personalized learning products used in controlled situations have yielded conflicting results, and there is little research to back up big districtwide personalized learning efforts that cut across all grade levels and subject areas.”

The RAND Corporation, who has closely studied personalized learning through a multi-year analysis, has found “weak” evidence surrounding the popular trend and its effectiveness, according to a statement in Education Week by John F. Pane, the group’s chair in education innovation. “I would not advise schools to dump massive resources into going fully into personalized learning,” added Laura S. Hamilton, the associate director of RAND Education. “Experiment with some new approaches that might be a good fit for your particular school or district, but monitor it very closely.”

Paired with the lack of research on personalized learning’s ability to improve educational outcomes is the concern that it is too heavily influenced by the tech industry and is an attempt to replace teachers with digital devices and data-mining software. Audrey Watters, an independent researcher, warns that personalized learning is a pretext for “massive data collection” and “surveillance” of students, as reported by Education Week’s Ben Herold.

The amount of screen time involved is also concerning. Take our country’s latest decline in reading scores, which certain data seems to attribute to increased screen time outside of the classroom. It distracts kids, and children are spending more time on screens than before. Personalized learning extends that screen time into the classroom, which, according to even liberal Alfie Kohn, ought to make us skeptical.

Certain forms of technology can be used to support progressive education, but meaningful (and truly personal) learning never requires technology. Therefore, if an idea like personalization is presented from the start as entailing software or a screen, we ought to be extremely skeptical about who really benefits.

One final caveat: in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community. Even proponents of personal learning may sometimes forget that fact, but it’s a fact that was never learned by supporters of personalized learning.

The Center’s Katherine Kersten has written extensively about the negative impact personalized learning has had within the Edina Public Schools. Despite the red flags surrounding the tech-heavy educational experience, the district implemented personalized learning throughout all schools and at all learner levels.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that in Edina Public Schools, personalized learning has led in many cases to inefficient, ineffective use of student learning time. The approach gives students a degree of autonomy that many are not ready or able to use productively.

Traditional “direct instruction” from a teacher is often minimal, with students working on their own or in small groups unmediated by an educational supervisor. Technology, including substantial screen time, plays a central role.

Its [personalized learning] most fundamental shortcoming, however, may be that it promotes a fragmented, rather than an integrated, approach to education. … Many critics have pointed out personalized learning’s tendency to expose students to new material in “bits and pieces”—one-off projects—which can make understanding and retention much harder.

Teachers tasked with implementing personalized learning are concerned about the “potentially negative effects of the digitally driven learning,” according to a 2019 Education Week Research survey of teachers. Only 41 percent of teachers have “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence that digital technologies used in personalized learning could improve student engagement. And when asked about these same digital technologies improving student learning, only 33 percent have those levels of confidence. Seventy-two percent of teachers are concerned personalized learning could lead to students spending too much time on screens, with 48 percent expressing concern that it leads to students working alone too often, and 47 percent concerned it gives the technology industry too much influence over public education.

Serious concerns remain about personalized learning, and the incomplete research on the popular trend offers a cautionary tale to school districts ready and willing to put tech industries in charge of public education reform.