Why EdTech Is Key for Personalized Learning…But Content Is Still King

In this video, I share some thoughts on EdTech and personalized learning. If your preferred mode is reading, the transcript is below the video.


Transcript of “Why EdTech Is Key for Personalized Learning…But Content Is Still King”

Education has always been poised between the public and the personal. You might think personalized learning is a recent advance, but it waxes and wanes throughout history, and technology has often been a vehicle for these shifts.

The balance between public and personal aspects of education comes to an interesting point in ancient Athens. The young citizen—and remember, a “citizen” was a male born to a land-owning family—received most of his formal education from a private tutor. Alexander the Great had a very good tutor named Aristotle.

Most formal teaching, in Athenian society, was done by private tutors. However, all citizens engaged in a collective educational project, which was to be in the chorus of a Greek play. This yearlong experience included formal language training, education in the stories of gods and heroes, and training in dance. The dance training was not for the sake of art. Rather, it was preparation for serving in the army, training for moving together in a phalanx, in which large numbers of soldiers in tight formation responded to the commands of pipes and drums. In other words, this phase of Athenian education needed to be public, not personalized, because these young men had to learn to make culture—and war—as a team.

In England, the so-called public schools are what we Americans would call private schools. They were originally known as “public” schools because, while they were open only to people who could pay the tuition, those people didn’t have to be local, and the schools were not exclusive to a particular religious group. One aspect of the Renaissance is the general movement away from education being centered on religious learning, toward its being organized around various disciplines.

Ashburnham_House_1880Ashburnham House, part of Westminster, one of England’s original public schools, from an 1880 photograph.

In America, public schooling grew rapidly after Independence, and, by 1870, all states had free public elementary schools. By the dawn of the 20th century, free public high schools outnumbered private ones. Students in the United States were expected to stay in school longer than their European counterparts, and the U.S. system was far less exclusive. By World War II, a large percentage of Americans had high school diplomas, as compared to Europeans. In large measure, this growth in public education was a result of the industrial revolution and the growth of larger agricultural enterprises. The division of labor increased the need for society to have places for children to go during the workday, and increased the need for a more highly educated population. By the end of World War II, the United States had the most advanced industrial infrastructure in the world, and the strongest public education system to support it.

Great_Falls_High_School_-_Great_Falls_Montana_USA_-_1900Great Falls High School, Great Falls, Montana, 1900.

The German system of industrial education inspired some emphasis on vocational education here in the United States. But in contrast to European systems, U.S. education generally focused on academic learning during high school, followed by vocational specialization through on-the-job training or post-secondary schools. Also, the U.S. system has always been operated by individual states, not, as in European countries, by central national authorities. Standardized testing arose in the United States as a way to look past the differences among local systems and compare students on a national basis. In other words, education was “more public” here in the sense that students were not tracked as early as they were in Europe. This went hand-in-hand with the American Dream of social mobility.

Even in countries without strong democracies, public education grew over time to be large public enterprises. However, making public education a large-scale enterprise throughout the world also contributed to education becoming less personalized. Generations of teachers in the United States would march their students through the same textbooks, handing out identical worksheets, and students would walk out of high school with an SAT or ACT score that served as a label for their level of aptitude. Content was king.

Along the way, technology has advanced, facilitating—if not causing—some of these developments in education. It should come as no surprise that technology developments have met with concern on the part of some educators. Plato expressed worry that, with the advent of written books, students might lose the ability to think critically, because seeing something so marvelous as a written book might make them accept the content of that book without critically evaluating it. This applies just as well to today’s students, who need to carefully evaluate the resources they find on the Internet.

Early on, technological development may have given weight to the public aspect of education, rather than personalized learning. While the bubble test was meant to democratize educational opportunity by giving top colleges the chance to admit capable but unsophisticated students from lower classes, the bubble test also reduced personal nuance in education, as compared to the extreme of private tutoring.

This is why recent developments in educational technology are so exciting. Now that technology is interactive, it has become more personal; the user can determine a lot about where a digital experience goes. Students are not just receiving information, they are creating it. Technology has made this possible with tools that allow students to publish not just content, but interactive content. See, for example, https://scratch.mit.edu/ and eduwidgets.org, which are a huge leap in this direction. At the same time, these student explorations are organized according to standards, which serves the “public” educational goal of establishing benchmarks that all students are expected to strive for.

Technological advances in education have always had their critics, and perhaps they’ve had points worth making. Today, developers can create highly adaptive learning systems, and, while that may contribute to the empowerment of the learner, there could be some danger that students will be treated by increasingly intelligent artificial systems as hamsters on a wheel. It is a typical scene when students go into a computer lab and disappear into their headphones. When does learning become so personalized that it can damage the important role schooling has played for millennia in helping to form societies, shape cultures, and bond people together in civilized groups?

The bottom line, then, is that technology has revolutionary potential to reconcile the tension between the personal and the public in education. However, the success of that revolution depends on the content—especially when you consider “content” as including the pedagogical thinking behind instruction and assessment. If technology is used to enable meaningful and authentic experiences that can have lifelong application across many areas of learning and life, while helping students meet standards, the revolution will be significant and exciting. In other words, the most important thing about educational technology is that it should be used in ways that are, above all, human.

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