Yet another new trend in education that sounds great in theory but is problematic in practice is “Personalized learning.” In theory, everyone progresses through each subject at their exact level and learning pace. In practice, everyone sits at a computer screen and decides which questions to research and which “educational” games to play while their every key stroke feeds into an edutechnological Panopticon.
Here is one scenario, described by Rebecca Mead in her recent New Yorker article on the AltSchool system, a growing network of private schools linked by computers and charging around $30,000 a year.
Students at AltSchool are issued a tablet in pre-K and switch to a laptop in later years… When I visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders, most of the children were sunk into their laptops. All were engaged in bespoke activities that had been assigned to them through a “playlist”—software that displays a series of digital “cards” containing instructions for a task to be completed. Sometimes it was an online task. Two children were doing keyboarding drills on a typing Web site. Their results would be uploaded for a teacher’s assessment and added to the student’s online Learning Progression—software developed by AltSchool which captures, in minute detail, a student’s progress.
The curriculum is roughly aligned with the Common Core… but AltSchool’s ethos …reflects a growing shift in emphasis among theorists toward “personalized learning.” This approach acknowledges and adapts to the differences among students: their abilities, their interests, their cultural backgrounds.
A girl in the class was completing an offline task—reading a book about polar bears. A boy lay on his stomach on the carpeted floor, headphones on, using a Web site called BrainPOP to learn how to calculate the perimeters of basic shapes. “Two out of five!” he shouted at one point, as oblivious of those around him as a subway rider wearing earbuds and singing along to Drake.
…Two girls sat together, laptops before them, using Google Images to scroll through pictures of seals for a social-studies assignment; occasionally, they paused to compare notes. Every so often, a student spoke with the teacher, a young woman in jeans and a loose top, her iPhone tucked under her thigh as she sat on the carpet. One girl had been using her laptop to research castles—an area of sustained interest. She and the teacher discussed princesses and castles, and whether they always went together. “That’s a good question,” the teacher said, and then asked, “Does America have princesses?”
A girl working nearby said, “Yes—my mom told me there was a princess and she died because of the paparazzi.”
“My mom says that every castle has got a torture place,” the girl who was studying castles said.
“What is a castle?—that was your starting question today,” the teacher said. After the girl wrote a response, on paper, the teacher snapped a photograph of the page, in order to upload it to the girl’s playlist card
She might also send it to a parent’s phone, using AltSchool Stream, an app that enables instant communication between home and school. Meanwhile, above the students’ heads, a network of white audio recorders hung from the ceiling, and fish-eye lenses were embedded in the walls. The goal of this surveillance system, AltVideo, is to capture every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis.
“Does every castle have torture?” the teacher said, her voice sounding sunny, if a bit distracted. “That’s a good starting question for tomorrow.”“Does America have princesses?” “Do castles have torture?” It’s one thing for children to work through a planned out curriculum at their own pace; quite another for them to work through the piecemeal content that arises from the piecemeal questions of kids too young to understand the big picture and the broader framework.
In the end, how many of these children will graduate knowing basic things like what the Holocaust is, where Iran is in relation to Russia, and what’s chemically interesting about water.
When everything depends on particular “starting questions,” “personal interests,” and “cultural backgrounds,” what ultimately results educationally is anyone’s guess—no matter how carefully we monitor the process.