Why Personalized Learning?

Access and Inclusion January 25, 2016

This article is part of a series on personalized learning (part 1 of 6).

After his daughter’s birth, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced that they would donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charitable work, including the promotion of personalized learning. Of all the learning “revolutions” out there with shinier names, why personalized learning? Why now?

All decisions are eventually personalized decisions, decisions grounded in an individual’s own encounters. Zuckerberg’ decision was probably motivated by his success with personalized learning. Though he has received formal education at Harvard, he dabbled at informal, personalized learning including the learning of Chinese, culminating in the ability to make a speech in Chinese at the Tsinghua University, one of the top universities in China. Students who have followed all the proper educational protocols and procedures, progressing from beginner to intermediate to advanced levels of courses, may not have accomplished as much. Probably with this success story, he becomes interested in creating a new environment for his daughter’s generation, teaching them how to fish, or better, creating a different pond for them.

Personalized learning as a concept wasn’t discovered yesterday. Nor is it purely western. Confucius was famous for having proposed “teaching to the talent” in his time. In America, John Dewey has cast a long symbolic shadow in which all educational reformers now walk, as they pursue reform to move education closer to students’ real lives, incorporating their individual differences. The realities of education have not lived up to these ideals. In much of the world, education still follows an industrial model in which students enter the educational assembly line in a cohort usually based on age, collectively go through educational “processing” one step at a time, then receive the quality control of tests and certifications, before eventually entering the market of jobs.

There is a growing consensus that this model has its problems. One of the problems is its internal validity, to borrow a term from researchers. Standardized curriculum falls short of what individuals and the society need. The model also has a reliability problem. Children do not learn alike. Grouping them simply by age, and force them to learn at the same group pace will bore some to tears and challenge others to fears. Seat time is no longer much of a predictor of success. The same seat time yields drastically different results. Solutions for these problems are sporadic and anecdotal, waiting to be discovered, analyzed and implemented or repurposed for use on a larger scale.

Pedagogical innovations also converge to make advances in personalized learning possible. Flipped classroom is now widely accepted, leading to greater flexibility among students. Project and problem-based learning are on the rise. Competency-based learning is gaining momentum. All of these are already causing changes in the presentation of educational content, the pathways to learning and the assessment of learning.

There is also an aspect of social equality to the idea of personalized learning. Affluent families can buy their way into customized teaching for their children, while regular folks have to accept what they can access in the public system, hence the moral imperative to work on personalized learning. In the public system, teacher and other educational resources are scarce, compromising effort to customize education based on personal differences. Small classes end up as the second-best choices. Even that is hard to achieve. Education is a subsystem in the larger social eco-system. In China, the shrinking pool of students due to one-child policies in the past few decades have led to decisions to close rural schools with low enrollment, while the remaining schools absorbed the displaced students, leading to even larger classes, especially in less developed areas where educational resources are scarce. 

Technological innovations have also made mass customization of learning possible. Facebook gets this. It pushes personalized information to every user based on searches and posts. Having learned that I am a Chinese, Facebook pushes to me holiday commercial featuring an Asian family making purchases to make aging parents happy. I am also becoming one of these people watching cat videos as I constantly post photos of my pets online to help Facebook learn more about myself. If information about commercial or personal hobbies can be customized, it would only be natural to use data to personalize learning as well.

Personalized learning that Zuckerberg advocates is a loud rallying call for educational reform. I am inspired by it. This type of learning is possible, but not without the joint effort by educators, industry, NGOs and educational administrators. It should not be just an entrepreneur’s dream. Learning is one of these areas where narrow silos will never work.