A Brave New World for “Personalized Learning”?

I have a rather uncomfortable confession to make*:  I think I am more than a WEE bit paranoid about the corporate takeover of education.

I often catch myself imagining cronies from huge conglomerates like Pearson and McGraw Hill smoking cigars in back rooms with heartless politicians, cackling as they systematically dismantle public education and suck every last damn dime out of a system scrambling for answers in a “high stakes” world where the “schools are failing” narrative has convinced everyone that teachers are incompetent and technology can do it all.

“Relax, Bill!” I’ll say in the middle of my incoherent ramblings and cold sweats.  “SURELY there are good people at big corporations who are developing products with PURE intentions.  It’s NOT about capitalizing on fears and making a fast buck. It’s about improving schools FOR THE CHILDREN!”

And then I read headlines like this one:

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Poke through the article.  It filled with horrifying quotes like this:

Based on Knowledge Space Theory, ALEKS uses research-based artificial intelligence to determine precisely what each student knows, doesn’t know and is most ready to learn in a given course. ALEKS interacts with students like a personal tutor, helping them study more effectively and efficiently by delivering the exact instruction they need, right when they need it.

The ability to assist students at all levels using real-time feedback and inherent motivators has resulted in significant improvements in retention, success and confidence. While the hallmark of ALEKS was its data-driven computational excellence, this new level of research on student behavior and archetypes will allow the learning system to focus more on conceptual learning and increase student motivation and persistence.

Sounds AMAZING, right?  HOORAY for Personal Tutors, Artificial Intelligence and Computational Student Archetypes!

That’s when the rational side of my inner-lunatic returns:  “Take off your tinfoil hat, Bill.  There’s no evil corporate cabal trying to undermine education.  You are being ridiculous.”

So I take a few deep breaths, stream a few Yo Gabba Gabba videos to channel my inner Foofa and think a few happy thoughts about daffodils and unicorns and pay raises for North Carolina teachers.  I settle myself and temper myself and steel myself for a return to the Internets in hopes of finding something hopeful to read about teaching and learning and schools.

And then I stumble across headlines like this:

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Poke through the article.  It’s filled with horrifying quotes like this:

Cengage is leveraging the power of the Knewton platform to create a next-generation adaptive course that is built with personalization in mind from the start, said Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO.

“Students will get continuously updated recommendations for what to study at any given moment and instructors will get predictive analytics that help them intervene before a struggling student falls behind or an advanced student becomes disengaged. Furthermore, ASU is involved in the product development to further tailor the course for students and instructors.”

The Active Adaptive Psychology course will be the first in a series of new “Active Adaptive” General Education courses delivered through this partnership. ASU will study the effects of both delivery models in on-ground, hybrid, and online class settings.

Sounds AMAZING, right?  HOORAY for Predictive Analytics and Active Adaptive Psychology! 

Maybe I AM losing my mind.  At the very least, I probably need to burn my Conspiracy Theory DVD and kick my late-night Neal Boortz and Free Talk Live habit.  But then again, what if I’m right.  Maybe corporations really ARE pushing flawed definitions of “personalized learning” in an effort to sell crap to school districts desperate for the good press that comes from looking like you’ve found the solution to “ensuring success for every student.”

All that I know is that genuine learning is a heck of a lot messier than McGraw Hill and Cengage and Knewton are making it out to be.

There’s very little “predictive” and “analytical” and “artificial” and “computational” about genuine learning.  Instead, genuine learning is social and driven by interactions and preconcieved notions and intellectual challenge delivered at just the right moment by people that you trust and respect and enjoy.

I also know that my students are WAY more motivated and persistent when they are working to address real-world problems.  They want to participate and to make a difference and to belong and to matter.  Mastery is meaningless when it leads to nothing other than “progress pie charts” and “personalized celebrations encouraging students to attain learning momentum” — cheap promises that McGraw Hill pushes on its customers.

That messiness is stripped away by “personalized, adaptive technologies” whose primary goal seems to be to clinically deliver the RIGHT basic facts to the RIGHT kids at the RIGHT time so they can answer the RIGHT questions on the RIGHT end of grade exams — and the end result is learning spaces that are lonely and less personal than ever before.

Am I wrong here?


*Blogger’s Note:  Have fun figuring out what percentage of this bit is honesty, sarcasm and humor!  


Related Radical Reads:

Learning Should Never be Lonely

Note to Principals: STOP Spending Money on Technology

My Kids, a Cause and Our Classroom Blog

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  • SandyMerz

    Who will watch the watchers?

    Dig the quote about affective computing – http://ow.ly/Kq6kn 

  • CarlDraeger


    The “Education-Publishing-Congressional Complex”. Type quietly, the NSA is listening.

  • nicolesmith

    A Man After My Own Heart!

    Finally–someone else besides me is asking these questions. I also have little faith in corporations’ ability to see students as anything more than profit centers to be mined.

  • akrafel

    Monetizing Education

    No, I do not think you are too paranoid.  We all have reason to worry about corporate control of our lives, our data, even our privacy in our own homes via computerized cameras on everyones laptops. Corporate interests already control the elections with their money.  We are next.  I went to a session at the Teaching and Learning 2015 conference that dealt with this topic.  The presenters stated that corporations view education like they viewed heatlh care years ago, as a massive resource to be mined for profit, ie Medicare part D.  Now they are seeing education as the same type of resource. This monetization of education is taking place on a worldwide stage.  It aims to see teachers as workers to be  paid as little as possible and the education of students as a profitable commodity.  The presenters were warning us all that this development will seriously undermine local, even national control of schools, parent control of what data is being taken on students etc. Students are indeed a massive population to exploit.  It is not just envasive technology in the classrooms, but corporate running of schools for profit via charters.  This is not what the charter laws intended ( I hope). I fear the outcome will be that big money, not students, parents and teachers who control education. It is all very disturbing.

    I feel like we are in a race between teacher power and corporate power.  I am anxious about the outcome just as you are.

  • Renee


    We can use tech to amplify teacher power, but I am finding we do need a quality scope and sequence of varied academic areas. That way, students can learn a certain amount independently and teachers can spend more time helping students get unstuck or pursue areas of interest. We teachers should find a way to generate our own student facing materials….we are leaving it for the big guys to take. 

  • Kyja

    great, let them do content, let us do personal development

    I share your concern about the corporatization of schools AND I see this turning point as an opportunity to rethink what our role is as teachers. We needn't, shouldn't be dispensers of content. Not in an Information Age. We should be extended family guiding students toward adulthood, practicing citizenship, decision-making and creation rather than consumption. That's something ALEKS will never do as well. I used ALEKS in college and didn't hate it. It really DID feel personalized. It was annoying being on the computer for hours, but as they move to tablets and more naturalistic interfaces that barrier will be gone. How can we turn this from an adversarial David and Goliath situation to one that give students all the advantages of the new and the ancient? 

  • Elizabeth Skelton

    Individualized Learning

    Thanks, Bill, for your insightful post.  I have seen this kind of 'adaptive'  computer learning in many classrooms in schools that claim to 'differentiate' instruction and am not impressed.  I've asked students in this evironment what they are learning or doing and they usually respond with something like "completing module 2".  Sometimes they don't really even know what 'module 2' is all about.  When I ask 'why' they are 'completing module 2', they often respond, "So I can move on to module 3."  Students move from 'individualized, adaptive, computer-based' learning in English to the same in math and then on to science and social studies.  I wonder why they are all sitting in the same classroom inside the same building and what the role of the teacher is in this situation?  The personalization, passion, and purpose are all missing in this school scenario and it's as sad as it is frightening. Thanks for starting this dialogue! 

  • John Wink

    Personalized Salvation

    Maybe corporations really ARE pushing flawed definitions of "personalized learning" in an effort to sell crap to school districts desperate for the good press that comes from looking like you've found the solution to "ensuring success for every student."  Personalized learning can't happen unless we make it happen.  No computer, program or screen can replace a highly qualified teacher.  I have proof to this fact.  Programs can't help kids reach rigor; only teachers can.  If politicians were held accountable for student success like educators are, we might see meaningful change, but unless voters provide this level of accountability, corporations will continue to drive this discussion. 

    Preach on.