My opinion of the education technology scene has changed quite a bit over the past few years. Whenever people hear that I’m interested in both computer science and education, their default response tends to be something along the lines of, “You should work for edX or Khan Academy!” When I was a freshman in college, I was totally on board with that idea. However, after realizing that my favorite part of teaching was getting to know my students on a deeper level and pushing them to achieve more, I became less interested in the idea of building technology that put curriculum online because I thought it seemed impersonal.
I was also somewhat influenced by Dan Meyer’s blog post “Problems with Personalized Learning” from March 2017. In the blog post, Dan highlights some of his concerns about an article written about personalized learning.
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.
I’ll be honest—reading this blog post made me question the effectiveness of all the personalized learning tools I had heard about. However, after reading Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, I realized that there was nothing wrong per se about the tools themselves. The problem was assuming that the simple act of incorporating “personalized learning” tools in the classroom would automatically make students learn better. The tool itself is not the solution. Rather the tool makes it possible for teachers and students to have more meaningful interactions in the classroom.
Sal explains that by having students watch lecture videos on their own time, teachers can invest classroom time in working one-on-one with students and personalize the explanations they give them. Student performance tracking on platforms like Khan Academy help teachers identify which students are struggling and on which concepts, which in turn allows teachers to address specific pain points for students.
Another way in which tools like Khan Academy pave the way for personalized learning is by making mastery learning possible. Students should not move onto more advanced topics until they have demonstrated mastery of the foundational concepts. Mastery learning is generally not feasible with the traditional school system because the entire class moves together from unit to unit regardless of whether or not the student has actually mastered the previous unit’s material. However, by letting students move at their own pace, Khan Academy opens the doors to mastery learning, which I would argue is a key to truly personalized learning.
Just having the right tools doesn’t mean that the problem will be solved. It’s equally important, if not more important, to use the tools properly. Funnily enough, this lesson helped me realize that tools that might seem impersonal on the surface can, in fact, open the doors to more personal interactions.