Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to give nearly all of his money away. And, one of the top directions for his money is for “Personalized Learning.” Personalized learning is defined as learning that is paced and directed to a student’s ability and style. Can it help improve achievement?
I believe that it most definitely can help. For one thing, there is solid evidence that personalized learning works. Yes, actual evidence. As far back as 3 decades ago, a high school in Florida decided to take a group of its lowest achievers, those on the verge of dropping out, and give them Computer Assisted Instruction (commonly called, tutorials). The results were phenomenal. Not only did many students decide not to drop out of school, but they also began to think that school could be pretty fun.
So what happened to the momentum with CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction)? Over the decades since that initial study, many schools started to embrace CAI. It had some good results in lower achieving school districts, but higher achieving school districts soundly rejected it. It was too regimental, too structured, too boring. CAI became known as the learning method for the poor, possibly to save money in poorer districts, a form of discrimination, really. It became associated with the undesirable psychological field of Behaviorism, which the study of learning in animals. It didn’t constitute real learning; real learning could only happen from an actual teacher to a student.
But nobody considered the possibility that CAI can work for those who need extra help — for the lower achievers. The higher achievers don’t need CAI, for the most part, because they are high achievers and are doing fine with the existing classroom method. And even better, evidence supports the fact that lower achievers who use CAI for a while, later don’t need it anymore. They gain confidence in their abilities and can learn in traditional ways.
As the decades progressed, other forms of Educational Psychology began to draw more attention. Distance Learning became the technology of choice in the last decade, but it hasn’t had good results. People point out that the drop-out rate for Distance Learning is high. But Distance Learning is not Personalized Learning. Distance Learning is just that. A classroom course delivered to students remotely. It isn’t really different than a classroom course, and the pace and style are the same for every student. So this comparison is not really appropriate.
And that is where we are today. Tutorials are considered as boring alternatives to classroom instruction, and distance learning is not proving effective with most students. But if I could wave a magic wand, what I would like to see is traditional classroom courses in grade school and middle school. While students do learn with different paces and styles, this is not as pronounced in the lower grades as in the higher grades. And I think human tutoring, such as what could be provided in school (or after school) would be sufficient to bring younger kids up to grade level.
But at high school and beyond, I would like to see the traditional academic areas of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic taught through CAI. The Florida study was with low achieving high school students and it worked great. Nobody wants to see students sitting in front of a computer for their entire academic life, but if we concentrate it to the higher grades, and just for those who really want and need it, it can really serve a purpose. Likewise, I’d like to see Distance Learning offered as an alternative to high school courses as well, but only to those that can handle its independent nature, and only in the later grades. Distance Learning can expand the curriculum, bringing more of a variety of learning to more students.
Technology has improved nearly every other area of life. Let’s have it help improve learning as well.