Friday, April 6, 2018

How To Sell Personalized Learning

One thing that modern corporate reformsters have always understood (because they view reform through that business eye) is market research as a tool for honing sales pitches. You may recall several years ago when we turned up a handbook for winning hearts and minds for charterdon.

Well, ExcelInEd and Education Elements have created a marketing handbook for Personalized [sic] Learning.

Sounds Swell. Who Are These Guys?

ExcelInEd is the newest name for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group that carried the standard for Jeb! Bush's reform ideas and was supposed to be his education brain trust for his ride to the White House (oops).  FEE/EIE theoretically occupies the rightward nexus of ed reform, but they play very nicely with outfits like EducationPost, which theoretically occupies the leftward nexus of ed reform. They also get along just fine with the DeVos USED. At various times they have promoted specious arguments for testing, tried to use aging demographics to sell choice, jumped on the honesty gap train to nowhere, held a regular reformster-palooza gatheration, and tried to harness fake-ish social media presences to tout the whole reformy package. They are a one stop shop for reformster baloney, sliced to whatever thickness you prefer. And they're funded by all the usual reformster crowd (Walton, Gates, Broad, etc). 

Yes, this again

Education Elements is a consulting firm that helps schools convert to Personalized [sic] Learning models. They are "partnered" with a variety of PL manufacturers, including i-Ready, Achieve3000, and PowerSchool, and they promise the whole Competency-Based Education glossary of buzzwords.

EE's COO is Amy Jenkins, whose corporate bio says she "started out as a middle school teacher in Oakland, California." No, not really. She graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in Political Science and Government, and then spent two years in Teach for America before going to Harvard Business School for an MBA. From there she went on to SCORES, the New Schools Venture Fund, and Monitor, before landing at Education Elements.

Jenkins co-authors this marketing study with Karla Phillips. Phillips has been the Policy Director of Personalized Learning for FEE for the last three years and change. Before that, she worked on education policy in Arizona, including three years as education policy advisor for Governor Jan Brewer (Brewer pushed letter grades for schools, merit pay for teachers, and big piles of money for charters).

All of this deserves some deep diving of its own, but we have other fish to skin today.

Just note this: EIE and its web of friends are excellent evidence that ed reform isn't always all that concerned with left and right except as variant forms of a sales pitch. EIE's partnership with EE is evidence that reformsters are moving seamlessly into the next round of the corporate privatization of public education.

Communicating Personalized Learning to Families and Stakeholders: Terminology, Tools and Tips for Success

This is the big ole report we're looking at, a handy guide for how to most effectively market Personalized [sic] Learning. In its introduction, it promises to share some "messaging testing results."

It opens by noting that one of the problems of PL is that nobody has actually defined what the hell it is. I'll give them points for noting "in this case, we cannot even rely on the famous quote by Justice Potter Stewart about knowing it when you see it, because we can't even agree on that."

So one of the questions they asked in the survey is what responders thought PL means, and that landed somewhere in the neighborhood of "Instruction is tailored to students." So we'll go with that.

Now then-- what recommendations do Jenkins and Philips have to share?

The case for change

Jenkins and Phillips want us to know that even though this looks like the latest in a long, long, long, LONG, series of silver bullets that promises to magically fix education, this time, it's totally different:

Personalized learning is also not just another initiative. It is not about buying software or devices; it is not a prepackaged plan or a scripted program. It is not something that will start and stop. Instead, it reflects progress, growing out of what we are discovering about human learning, about how to integrate new tools that become available and about the new knowledge and types of skills our children will need to be successful in the modern world.

That paragraph is your first lesson in marketing PL, which in many many cases (e.g. Summit) is exactly about buying software and devices to run a prepackaged program. But you can't market it like that. Instead, you must use all the fancy, high-sounding stuff. Because it will be hard to convince people to throw out school as they know it so it can be replaced by devices used to run prepackaged software-centered algorithm-directed school.

Jenkins and Phillips do offer one wise insight. "Based on survey results, it appears personalized learning advocates have tried to offer a narrative that we wanted to tell rather than a message the public, especially families, wants to hear."

There is good news for those of us who are tired of the "schools haven't changed in 100 years" line-- it doesn't sell product. "History lessons on the stagnation of education in America make for great conversations and debates at conferences, but remember: Families don't typically have that luxury of time for academic discourse on the history of long-term trends in education."

The survey backed up the usual finding-- people think their own school is great, but everyone else's is more suspect. Further, the survey indicated that 42% strongly agreed that US schools in general are "inadequate," but only 28% strongly agreed with "outdated."

Bottom line: the March of Time sales pitch is not a winner.

Parent Priorities

Parents were shown some copy about what personalized learning could promise, then asked if that changed their mind and which words turned the trick. So, kind of like telling a five year old, "If you eat broccoli, you get a pony, and x-box and a bicycle. Now, will you eat the broccoli? And if so, which promise changed your mind?"

The results demonstrate that families know exactly what their students need for the future: knowledge and skills.

Well, not a huge shocker, particularly as we don't know what other outcomes were pitched.

Also not shocking-- studies have found that families respond poorly tp phrases like "one-size-fits-all" or "cookie cutter." This, incidentally, is the part where folks with a high level of paranoid conspiracy belief might suggest that Common Core was implemented simply to advance the narrative that schools are one-size-fits-all, thereby setting the stage for the Pl revolution.

Messages To Push

Jenkins and Phillips offer some specifics about what messaging will help with marketing personalized [sic] learning programs.

Focus on the future. Talk about how PL will get the students the knowledge and skills they will need to handle college and career in the big, scary world of tomorrow.

Benefits to family. Push how PL will give more detailed and deeper understanding of how your child is progressing. It will help with parent-teacher collaboration. It will free up time for more student-student and student-teacher interaction.

Benefits to students. "Students are encouraged to play a greater role-- and be more invested-- in their learning." Instruction will be tailored to students' interests and therefor will be more engaging. And they can learn at their own pace, solidly mastering each unit.

Benefits to teachers. Flexibility and tools to meet the needs of each child.

Most of this is, of course, baloney. Students will get the skills and knowledge that they must have-- but they will mostly study things that interest them. Teachers will be free to interact more with students and parents, but because software is looking at all the student "work," teachers will have far less sense of how the student is doing (no, reading a data dashboard is not the same thing). Students will acquire deep and complex skills and knowledge-- but only the parts that can be reduced to a computer-monitored checklist of easily-assessed performance tasks.

Co-opt Teachers

In a big sidebar, Jenkins and Phillips remind us that parents mostly trust teachers, so you need to get your teachers involved in making the sales pitch. Presumably their contribution should not include things like "Yes, this system is great because now I don't really have anything to do at all" or "Teacher? Actually, I used to work at an ad agency, but when they told me that anyone with any college degree could be hired as a classroom progress monitor, I jumped right on that."

Things Not To Say

No marketing report would be complete without advice on hat language to avoid. Jenkiins and Phillips highlight several no-nos.

For instance, whereas parents like the idea of student grades based on mastery and teachers having the flexibility to help all students, parents were not fans of change the classroom design and school schedule, nor did they like the idea that attendance, participation and extra credit would no longer help a student's grade.

Parents don't like the idea of standardized testing, so finding out the PL means test after test, day after day, does not play well in the market.

Turns out that civilians don't know what the heck "student agency, voice and choice" actually means. The report recommends that messagers stick with "have input." But don't be too strong about it-- parents are also generally not fans of a school in which students just kind of do whatever, whenever.

Technology can scare everyone away, from parents who want their children to interact with other human students and teachers. Teachers are not keen on losing their jobs to computers. Jenkins and Phillips call these ideas "misunderstandings," but in fact many PL promoters have been exceedingly clear that these concerns are absolutely on point.

Jenkins and Phillips advise that "technology should be presented as a tool that can help enable personalized learning, especially at scale, but it cannot and will not ever replace teachers." They argue to present it this way-- they do not argue that this is actually true. This is the heart of the PL bait and switch-- personalized learning conjures up pictures of classrooms with high teacher-student ratios and super-tech equipment that enhances the teacher's work in crafting a custom program for each child. But that dream is a flying Lexus-- technically, maybe, possible, but far too expensive. So instead, what you actually get is a software, computers, algorithm-selected teaching, teachers who aren't really teachers any more, and school leaders who think this is a way to put 100 students in a single classroom (which is what the oxymoronic "personalized learning at scale" means).

Softening the Market

Okay, they call this part "tools to create consensus." They link here to a variety of marketing resources for winning over parents, including several Education Elements articles stressing that personalized learning need not be digital at all. And I agree that is absolutely true-- the best way to do personalized learning is with one good teacher in a class of about ten students. I would be encouraged a bit by these articles, maybe, if it weren't for the list of EE partners that are all under the heading "These EdTech providers make our shortlist; check them out." This is an entire consulting business that exists to get ed tech providers of PL into schools.

They include a graphic about the four "core" elements of PL: flexible content and tools, targeted instruction, student reflection and ownership, and data-driven decisions. Each one of those points directly at software-provided solutions. "Sure," they'll say, "You can do all of this without this special software and these tech devices-- but look at how much easier the software makes it!!"

Be Prepared

Jenkins and Phillips note that everyone is super-interested in PL, but everyone is also familiar with how school usually works, so they will have lots of questions about how things are supposed to work. You should be prepared with answers for those questions. The paper lists a bunch of probable questions, and many of them are pretty good ones. Will it hurt students socially to get ahead or behind everyone else? What exactly will "mastery" mean? How will this affect discussion nd classroom interaction?

Jenkins and Phillips don't offer any answers to these very good questions, other than A) your answers should be based on your specific plan and B) you should avoid saying things that will "fuel opposition." Avoid saying anything that "could lead families to believe" that it will be really expensive to do right, that teachers will be overworked, that the curriculum will be dumbed down so that it doesn't look like many students are falling behind, or that it only works for top students.

Those things may be true. Just don't let families get the impression that they're true.

Final Tips

To wrap up, these folks whose whole business is to push personalized [sic] learning tell us that they have data showing that personalized [sic] learning works. My local car dealer has data showing why his band is the best. Cigarette companies have data showing that tobacco is not hazardous to your health. Any company with a product to sell should have data supporting that product; any customer with money to spend should ignore that data.

But here are some last marketing tips, divided up by role. District leaders should have a clear vision for PL, and express it in plain English. School leaders should talk about PL whenever possible. There's "tremendous momentum" behind this train, so you should climb on board. Teachers should hang signs in their classrooms and talk about PL during parent conferences. "Help your students understand why things are different." I'm assuming they aren't asking me to say, "Things are different in public schools because a bunch of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers and tech gurus started looking for ways to get a piece of the giant mountain of money spent on public education, so they teamed up with some well-meaning amateurs who mistook their own ignorance for genius and grabbed the power to rewrite the education system." No, that's probably not the correct answer.

There are some curious omissions-- nothing in the paper addresses concerns about hoe tech-based PL is a giant data-sucking privacy-destroying profit-generating violation of personal security. And there are so many questions raised here without even a hint of an answer. Maybe they just didn't consider that their brief, but are ed reformsters really going to make this same mistake again? Your marketing and promotion are pretty tightly connected to what your product actually is and actually does-- and yet this paper doesn't address the on-the-ground reality of PL except to acknowledge that nobody can agree on what it is. Which would seem to be a pretty big marketing problem. Buy our thing, because it does stuff, in some way!

Personalized [sic] Learning faces the same problem as many of modern reform's greatest hits-- you can market and PR and arm twist all day, but eventually people are going to deal directly with the product, and all the PR in the world will not help. PL fans should spend less time pondering their marketing and more time pondering their actual product. And in this respect, they are indeed just one more initiative, one more sales pitch, one more resource-sucking idea


  1. "Children working at their desks in school are almost always put off when even a kindly and respected teacher watches over their shoulders. How much more disconcerting to realize that each single deed, thought, and feeling is watched by the teacher of teachers, that nowhere [...] is there any hiding-place from the Eye which sees all and judges all." ~Alan W. Watts.

    Watts wrote this passage to talk about the concept of God. I think, this passage fits so well with what software tools do.

    This is the first time, I have looked at technology from this angle. Isn't this what happens in classrooms which use computer-tools to monitor students work in real-time?

  2. The ed-tech industry will be sorely disappointed when they discover just how few teachable moments occur in a school year. And they'll be even more disappointed when they realize that software programs can't hold a candle to actual teachers when it comes to creating those really good, palpable teachable moments.

  3. Full disclosure: In my role as a regional staff developer, I have worked with several consultants from Ed Elements.

    They spend far more time on culture than on tech. And many teachers in my region have found the process of implementing the ideas shared by Ed Elements to be a positive experience for them and their students.

    Their big idea is using technology to reshape the use of time so teachers spend less time in whole group instruction and more time working with students in targeted small groups.

    You are spot on. Teachers will never be replaced by a data dashboard. But when practicing the kinds of skills (low-level Blooms) that can be mediated with computer instruction, having a data dashboard and a caring teacher is a powerful combination.

    One challenge is that many teachers have found the changes very demanding and time-consuming. Ed Elements pushes a model that requires the same number of teachers and doesn't replace any adults with tech.

    I am a huge skeptic of consultants and think they are often a waste of time and resources. But working with Ed Elements has been different.