When Personalized Learning is Too Impersonal

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 

I remember the first time I heard the term “playlist” used in an educational context—it was in an audiobook I was listening to on the treadmill.

The author talked about this new charter school called RocketShip in the Bay Area.  He described how the teachers used playlists to personalize the learning and allow each student to pursue mastery of learning targets.

I remember being so excited that I yelled out, “Yes!” and pumped my fist into the air a few times as I was walking (perhaps not the coolest thing to do in the gym, but hey, I am a certified learning geek).

A playlist—using technology to help teachers navigate the logistics of bringing fluidity to our standardized system—this seemed brilliant!  I wanted so badly to go see it action, but the demands of my job and the shortcomings in my finances prevented such an expedition (so far).

 

Then, recently, I read something disturbing about playlists in education—the “playlist cycle of doom!”  

The playlist cycle of doom?  How could something designed to give learners exactly what their brains needed—based on where they actually were instead of where they were supposed to be—have turned into a cycle of doom?

This article’s author, Rupa Chandra Gupta, described the program her school was implementing:

“In 2015, our school was selected to join the first cohort of a personalized learning program that involved a web-based technology platform, curricula, digital assessments and extended training.  A foundation of the program had students learn the content (facts, definitions, procedures) largely on their own.  Students work through an online set of activities—called a playlist—for each topic.  They then take a quiz to demonstrate mastery.  Ideally, this is done with little support.  That way, teachers can spend more time working with students on application of content and projects.

As I observed classrooms, I noticed a significant portion of students go through a disturbing cycle: do the playlist, take the assessment, fail it.  Do the playlist (again), take the assessment (again), fail it (again).  Do the playlist (yep, one more time), take the assessment (uh huh), fail it (surprise, surprise).  It’s a frustrating experience, especially for struggling students.”

 

What Gupta described was not what had me pumping my fist into the air and embarrassingly yelling out loud in public. 

No.  This was not my vision of an educational playlist.  This “personalized” learning was far too incredibly impersonal.

I was excited about the possibility of using technology to allow teachers to bring fluidity to the groups of students they worked with, so that students were always able to work in their struggle zone—where it was never too easy nor too hard.  Where they had multiple opportunities to engage in Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust in a supportive learning environment.

I never imagined creating a system that expected learners to learn on their own. 

Most of us need to work with others to access the true power of our amazing brains.  Humans are social creatures.  Learning is almost always most powerful when it is a social endeavor

I never imagined creating a system that did not include coaching. 

Beginning learners, who are on the low end of the learning curve, are not usually knowledgeable enough about the type of adjustments to try when engaged in a cycle of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust.  Having someone from further up the curve offer suggestions (coaching) about what types of adjustments to try is an extremely powerful key to learning. 

Analyzing and adjusting is a vital component of powerful learning and one that doesn’t happen with dependent learners without powerful coaching.  That is, unless you’re engaging learners in reflection about their own learning with others who are at the same stage of the learning curve (and who have previously learned skills for examining and sharing their own thinking).

 

Fortunately, Gupta did not leave us stuck with a vision of the Playlist Cycle of Doom.  She went on to describe just such an example of personalized learning that employed the power of shared self-reflection.  She discussed a second grade teacher who coached her students to reflect and share their strategies for reading non-fiction.

 

Unfortunately, Gupta’s school is not the only one to have experimented with taking the personal out of personalized learning. 

I attended an online school billed as a “competency-based” approached to higher education.

What that meant for me was almost no actual human interaction.  I was assigned a mentor at the beginning of my program which was a feature that had really drawn me to the school when I was conducting my research into master’s programs.

I was very excited by this feature.  I’d never truly had a mentor before and was really looking forward to someone who could push my thinking and point me in directions I might not have considered on my own.

Unfortunately, my mentor did none of those things.  I’m not sure whether it was a design of the program, or her own lack of clarity of what the role of mentor entailed, but my assigned mentor only acted in the role of “accountability partner.”  She allotted me 15 minutes a week and the main purpose of our calls was to make sure I was getting my assignments complete and turned it.

15 minutes a week is not a lot of time to build a relationship with someone.  It certainly wasn’t enough time to ponder all the questions I had about teaching, leading, learning, and where my place might be in the vast universe of shifting the paradigm for how schools work in America.

So, if the mentor wasn’t going to build a relationship with me and help me to ponder those questions, perhaps my professors might.

Except, I didn’t have any professors.

Each “course” I took in this program only had assignments. The “competency-based” approach meant that I could tackle these assignments at my own pace and whenever I wanted. There were materials I could access and boards I could post to if I had questions.  And, to be fair, if I had posted questions, I am sure that a real human with real knowledge would have replied to my query. 

But, I did not post questions.

The kinds of questions I had required a relationship and trust to be asked.  They weren’t the sort of questions I was comfortable posting for strangers.

I still haven’t finished this master’s program.

I dropped out (for now) at the very end because I didn’t have the emotional, institutional or financial resources to make the capstone project happen.

I am not trying to blame the pain of that personal failure on my unnamed school, but I am issuing a clarion call along with Rupa Chandra Gupta.

“Playlists alone don’t equal personalized learning” and personalized pacing alone doesn’t equal competency-based education.

We need to keep experimenting with how to use technology to allow personalized pacing and targeted lessons, but we must never forget the very human and social aspect of learning and the power of coaching along the way.

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