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Monday, June 08, 2015

Personalized Learning: More Teacher, Less Algorithm? by Benjamin Herold

Follow on Twitter as @BenjaminBHerold
"Many in the ed-tech sector believe algorithms are key to customizing education, but the most compelling examples of personalized learning are driven by teacher-student relationships." reports Benjamin Herold, staff writer for Education Week and writes for the Digital Education blog. 
Mt. Pleasant High teacher Robyn Howton works with students in her 11th grade Advanced Placement English class. 
Photo: Education Week (blog) 

As a reporter who covers ed tech full-time, I get a LOT of press releases and public-relations pitches about "personalized learning," mostly from vendors, advocacy groups, and the like.

The thrust is generally the same: Digital technology + data + algorithms = content and instruction that can be tailored to individual students' strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and interests. Let the revolution begin.

But last month, while reporting at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del. for Education Week's forthcoming Technology Counts 2015 report, to be released Wednesday, I came across an altogether different version of technology-enabled personalized learning.
What first caught my eye: watching Mount Pleasant junior Ta'Nia Henson walk out of her Advanced Placement English class.

Turns out, the 17 year-old Henson is much more passionate about music than English. So in the middle of class, she decided to head downstairs, to the school's high-tech in-house audio-engineering studio.

Then, what really grabbed me: the reaction of Henson's teacher, Robyn Howton. The 24-year classroom veteran couldn't have been happier.

"She's very creative, but I could never get her to enjoy the formal-type writing we would do in class," Howton explained. "For me, the hook to getting her to value English was helping her to see its power in what she loves to do."

And then, the two things that have had me thinking ever since: Both Howton and Henson swear that that using technology to produce music has not only made Henson more engaged in English class, but actually helped her to become a better writer.

And the whole experiment grew out of the pair's close personal relationship, nurtured not just in class, but in long talks during practices and meets for the track team (which Howton helps coach) and in a school-based college prep program (that Howton helps lead.)

Algorithms aren't driving the "personalization" in Ta'

Her teacher is.

Technology's role
Don't get me wrong. Technology is playing a critical role. It provided more opportunities for Howton to create that magical moment for Henson to become invested in her own learning. And when that crucial something did click, the experience was more powerful, because the teen had access to an amazing variety of tools to explore and create and learn, both in class and on her own.

But that version of "personalized learning" is quite different from the version that has become almost de rigueur in the ed-tech sector. Too often, the tendency there is to think primarily in terms of the exploding markets for digital devices and content.


Source: Education Week (blog)