During back to school season, so many things are new. New students. New teachers. New learning. New school or district wide initiatives, including new software. Yet, for all that’s new, there are certain things that don’t change. For the last decade, some of the most common initiatives have been about increasing personalization and using technology. However, educators need to tread carefully or run the risk of technology making teaching and learning less student-centered instead of more, failing to prepare our students to be successful adults.
The impetus for personalization lies in increasing student achievement. Research conducted in the mid-80’s by Benjamin Bloom, of Bloom’s Taxonomy fame, found that the most effective model of instruction is one student to one teacher. It almost necessarily customizes the teaching to the learner. Most students are able to achieve at much higher levels with 1:1 teaching, but, of course, the logistics are impractical. The mission of educators then becomes figuring out how to provide 1:1-level results with group instruction–the problem of scale.
Fortunately, as problems go, scale is something we humans have experience solving. When we have to achieve more with fewer resources, we invent a tool. Want to move more goods but they’re really heavy? Invent the wheel. Need to disseminate information to a broader audience but everyone is far away? Here comes the newspaper. Want to elicit higher student achievement but you only have one teacher for 40 students? Thank you, adaptive software.
“Adaptive” in edtech is, at its core, a way for schools to provide the right learning experience for each individual student at exactly the right time. Currently, the primary ways adaptive software adapt are with content, assessment, and sequence. Imagine a program that delivers a pre-test or pinpoints a skill gap, then serves up learning content. While the student consumes content, the software is probing for understanding and remediating in real time. Products with a legitimate claim to the “adaptive” label have one or more of those functions.
True adaptive software can assess, deliver content, and modify a student’s path through curriculum according to a set of programmed instructional heuristics. Seems ideal, right? Every student can be on his or her own path and moving at their own pace. If teachers are relieved of the need to manage instruction and assessment, they could manage the individual learning paths of 30, 50, or even 100 students. 1:1 at scale. However, if individualized content and assessment were all students of today needed, we’d probably already be in the middle of an Orwellian shift to a computer-controlled Ministry of Education.
There is no argument that the world has changed in the last 10 years. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2012, most job growth between 2008 and 2018 would be in the areas of hospitality and tourism (16 percent); business, management and administration (13 percent); health science (10 percent); marketing, sales and service (9 percent); transportation, distribution and logistics (9 percent); and manufacturing (8 percent).
Today, researchers tell us that robots and artificial intelligence are coming for those jobs, perhaps as much as 54 percent of them, leading to widespread future unemployment. What careers will be in demand in the future and what should we be teaching our students? The necessary skills of the future are much more about human interaction. We’ll need more people to make software, solve problems creatively, and interact well with other humans.
This is where adaptive software, AI, and the coming robot invasion fall short. What happens when interacting with a good teacher is much richer? So many of the activities we reflexively engage in as teachers aren’t possible to program into software. How do we encourage a sense of community, model a love of learning, show compassion, teach metacognitive and critical thinking skills, instill respect for others, or foster passion? That kind of experience, intuition, and good teacher judgement can only happen when we have a personal relationship with our students — the kind of relationship that necessarily develops when a passionate teacher is able to truly personalize learning for each student.
That’s why it’s critical to carefully examine your expectations for new software and ensure you select products that flexibly support personalization and the all-important factor of human interaction.