A reader pointed me to this interesting article in the current Educational Leadership on “personalized learning.” She said it raised an alarm for her that she couldn’t quite put into words and she asked if I heard that same alarm and, if so, what words I’d use to describe it.

I hear a few alarms, some louder and faster than others. Let me point them out in the piece.

Here we describe a student’s typical day at a personalized learning school. The setting is the Waukesha STEM Academy-Saratoga Campus in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

You could be forgiven for not knowing, based on that selection, that one of the authors is the principal of the Waukesha STEM Academy and that his two co-authors have financial ties to the personalized learning industry the Waukesha STEM Academy is a client of the other two authors [see this exchange. -dm]. What should be disclosed in the article’s first paragraph can only be inferred from the authors’ biographies in its footer. This minimal disclosure is consistent with what I perceive to be irresponsible self-promotion on the part of the personalized learning industry. (See also: “… this robot tutor can essentially read your mind.”)

(Full disclosure: I work in education technology.)

Then, in describing a student’s school experience before personalized learning, the authors write:

… [Cal’s] planner, which looked similar to those of the other 27 students in his class, told him everything he needed to know: Math: Page 122; solve problems 2–18 (evens). [..] Each week looked about the same.

If this is truly the case, if students didn’t interact with each other or their teacher at all, if they simply opened their books and completed a textbook assignment every day, every week, we really can’t do much worse. Most alternatives will look great. This isn’t a sober analysis of available alternatives. Again, this is marketing.

[Cal] began to understand why he sometimes misses some of the things that he hears in class and ands more comfort in module-based courses, where he can fast forward and rewind videos and read instructions at his own pace.

Fast-forwarding, rewinding, and pausing instructional videos are often cited as advantages of personalized learning, not because this is necessarily good instruction, but because it’s what the technology permits.

And this isn’t good instruction. It isn’t even good direct instruction. When someone is explaining something to you and you don’t understand them, you don’t ask that person to “repeat exactly what you just said only slower.” You might tell them what you understand of what they were saying. Then they might back up and take a different approach, using different examples, metaphors, or illustrations, ideally responding using your partial understanding as a resource.

I’m describing a very low bar for effective instruction. I’m describing techniques you likely employ in day-to-day conversation with friends and family without even thinking about them. I’m also describing a bar that 2017 personalized learning technology cannot clear.

His students don’t report to class to be presented with information. Instead, they’re empowered to use a variety of learning tools. Some students, like Cal, prefer step-by-step videos; others prefer songs and catchy rhymes to help them learn concepts. [..] He opens a series of videos and online tutorials, as well as tutorials prepared by his teacher.

In the first sentence, we’re told that students like Cal aren’t presented with information. Then, in the following sentences, we’re told all the different ways that those students are presented with information.

Whether you learn concepts from a step-by-step video, a rap, or a written tutorial, you are being presented with information. And a student’s first experience with new information shouldn’t be someone on a screen presenting it, no matter the style of presentation.

Because there is work students can do before that presentation to prepare themselves to learn and enjoy learning from it.

Because the video presenter treats students as though they have the same existing knowledge and prior conceptions about that information, even though those conceptions vary widely, even though some of them are surprisingly durable and require direct confrontation.

Because these video presentations communicate to students the message that math is something you can’t make sense of unless some adult explains it to you, that learning is something you do by yourself, and that your peers have nothing to offer your understanding of that new information.

I like a lot of the ethos around personalized learning – increasing student agency and metacognition, for example – but the loudest, fastest alarm in the article is this:

The medium is the message. Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough. Its gravity pulls towards videos of adults talking about math, followed by multiple choice exercises for practice, all of which is leavened by occasional projects. It doesn’t matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of that learning. Taking your pick of impoverished options still leaves you with an impoverished option.