Saturday, September 29, 2018

Personalized Digital Test Prep Lab Rats

If you want to see the worst of what Personalized [sic] Learning can look like, let me take you straight to horse's mouth. We're not going to look at a critique, but at an actual sales pitch, and see how on the ground, Personalized [sic] Learning is about computer-delivered test prep. It is about extending the tyranny of the test via digitized instruction.

Here's the pitch. At first glance it appears to be just another article at EdSurge-- and it's meant to-- but in fact is what's now called "sponsored content" aka "advertising meant to be mistaken for an actual legit article. "A Back-to-School, Personalized Learning Toolkit" is by Ryan Hagedorn, COO at Edmentum, where his career has been in marketing and sales (he earned a degree in marketing from Hofstra in 2004). Edmentume is, of course, a leading provider of online Learning Stuff, and the tool kit is ten pieces of PR materials. In their own presentation, these folks tell us what they think the main point, purpose, and strength of Personalized [sic] Learning is supposed to be.

Let's look through the kit.

1) A how-to guide.

It's a 16-page booklet, and it identifies personalization with creating a student profile, assessing their current status, and setting a path. While it acknowledges "learning modalities" and the need to "appeal to student interests," the guide comes back to the idea of a "path." As we'll see again and again, the personalized learning is really personalized pacing. All students follow the same track-- they just get to go at their own speed.

There is a creepiness factor here. After suggesting a wide assortment of academic and personal data to be collected about each child, the guide suggests you make the solution to making the student profiles "manageable" is to "leverage online solutions." Then make the profiles accessible and get students to contribute information. Everyone can grab  shovel so the data mining will go more easily! Your Data Overlords thank you.

2) Video- Personalized [sic] Learning at Oregon High School

The promotional video talks to people in various roles at the school, including an actual teacher plus a principal, student, online/blended facilitator, parent, district online/blended coordinator. There are computer-porn shots of laptops being opened, shots of students sitting silently together at a table in front of their screens. The student talks about moving along the path at her own speed-- but not about determining the path. And we get a favorite Edmentum quote about not teaching to the middle any more. We get lip service about the importance of teacher-student relationship, but all the students in the video are at computers (pricey Apple laptops), with a teacher occasionally appearing at the student's shoulder.

The district coordinator talks about getting the pacing right. Pace pace pace. And being in line with the standards, because the (Common Core) standards are a necessary part of this "revolution."

3) Workbook- Online Curriculum Guide

This is a link to yet more "resources" like blog posts about evaluating ed tech and Marzano's best teaching techniques. The workbook portion talks about how online resources can be used as text, complete course, or credit recovery scam program. It offers helpful teaching advice like "clearly present goal/objective for each assignment" and "provide students with all materials needed to complete an assignment" and "remember to breathe"-- okay, not that last one, but the "tips" here seem aimed at someone who slept through all of their college teacher prep classes.

There are also tips for running Personalized [sic] Learning like "monitor student work" and "allow students to progress through assignments at their own pace" and "treat all students equally." Also "allow students to ask questions." It is hard to escape the notion that this program is being designed to be run by aides with no actual classroom experience, because this is basic basic stuff.

Then there are some tips for evaluating the online provider of your curriculum, thereby completing the picture of a program designed to be administered  by a "school" full of people who are either a) dopes or b) not actual educators.

4) Blog- Five Steps To Differentiated Instruction

Assess student, align to standards, create path, monito students, repeat. This is supposed to be a "deep dive" into how it's done. We may have some disagreement about what "deep" means.

5) Workbook- Blended Learning: Fundamentals of the Planning Process

This handy workbook defines blended learning as learning that occurs at least partly on line, in a physical location other than the student's home, and the "modalities along each student's learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience" which means-- well, I'm not sure. Edmentum might be rejecting micro-competency badges here, or they might just be flexing their gobbledeegook muscles.

They recognize four models-- rotation, flex, a la carte and enriched virtual. Rotation means moving through labs or stations, or using a flipped classroom. Flex is more a 1:1 computer situation. A la carte involves taking all of some courses on line. "Enriched virtual" means "virtual." Cyberschool.

It offers a blended learning project timeline for implementation. My favorite checkpoint on that is "Staff Onboarding."

6) Webinar-- Blended Learning: Which Model Works for You

Hard pass. The description indicates they actually focus on rotational and flex models.

7) Video- Blended Learning at Red Mill Elementary

Heavy once again on the personal pacing, but the most striking feature is how heavily it pushes the idea that Edmentum's stuff helps the school get better scores on the Big Standardized Test. Expected because one of the "teaching" programs is Study Island, which is a really terrible program designed to do computerized test prep. I don't want to go off on a Study Island rant, but if my children were spending any amount of time on Study Island at school, I'd be making phone calls. But the teacher and principal in the video are excited that students know "exactly what will be on the test" and that reports from the programs tell them what standards need to be additionally taught in order for the test prep to be effective. To be clear, "test prep" is my words, not theirs-- but that's what we're talking about. Computer programs used as test prep and test coaching-- not actual education.

The video also underlines the data backpack personal record that will follow the students on and on. The principal repeats the "not teaching to the middle" line and we talk about how a child who is below level is left to work at their own pace. What the constant discussion of pace continues to ignore is the age old question-- what do you do with a child whose pace will get them through six grade in eight years?

8) Workbook-- Virtual Learning: Exploring the Options for Expanded Opportunity.

The workbook promises to help districts decide if complete virtual implementation is best, if they should become a cyber school. Let me save you some time-- it isn't. Ever. Virtual schools have proven consistently to be disastrous for everyone except the companies making money from them.

9) Blog-- Universal Design for Learning: Powering Personalized Experiences for All Students

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is thrown out as another idea for personalization, except that it also purports to be about designing curriculum that will work for everyone. "One size does not fit all," says UDL, "unless you make one size the UDL way, in which case one size will totally fit everyone." (UDL fans can argue with me in the comments). UDL also throws around "brain science": and some of the discredited ideas about learning styles.

10) Blog-- How To Evaluate EdTech Tools that Support Teaching and Learning

"As the traditional classroom evolves into an environment rich in technology..." opens this blurb, demonstrating how simple word choices like "rich" can help sell your product. Incidentally, none of these blog links are to an actual blog-- the links all lead to ad copy on an authorless corporate website of Edmentum's. I'm not sure whether this tech-based company doesn't understand what a blog is or if they just hope their audience doesn't know.

But this ad copy says that good edtech is standards aligned, because standards standards standards. To dive, even non-deeply into the edtech world is to realize how much they needed and use The Standards as a marketing tool.

The tech should engage students, by which they seem to mean that the tools should assess students a lot and use the data  "to construct learning activities at the student's zone of proximal development" with just the right level of challenge. Do you know how this really works? Students learn that doing too well on the pre-assessment gets you hard work to do, but if you deliberately throw the pre-assessment, you can get yourself a break.

The tools should support teachers and inform instruction. Do they give lots of reports. And toold should "leverage technology for effective assessment."

There's more, but what we really ought to notice is that a conversation that started out about personalized learning is now entirely about buying computer software products to teach and assess the students.

How To Use This Post

The next time a Personalized [sic] Learning disciple tells you how it's not at all about computerized learning or data mining or perpetuating the Common Core, just send them to this post. See, I agree with folks who say that personalized learning-- actual personalized learning-- doesn't have to be about all this digital baloney. But the ideals of personalized learning are not what's happening-- this is what's happening. Slavish alignment to the Core standards (even if they're operating under an assumed name) while students spend chunks of their day staring at a screen, teachers are just facilitators, and a bunch of data is steadily extracted as mediocre instruction is digitally delivered to digital natives who are not, I assure you, saying "Wow, when I do boring worksheets on a computer it's so much more exciting!" (In fact, digital natives now think that desktops and laptops are quaintly old-fashioned, but that's a discussion for another day.)

This is what companies are actually selling as personalized learning-- software teaching programs that take the person out of personalized and turn learning into lab rat style training. No thank you.


  1. 50 million students x 180 days x 7 periods =

    72 billion individual, "personalized" periods of instruction - per school year.

    Sorry but the math debunks their claim

  2. This past year our public school couldn't find a Spanish teacher to hire. We ended up with an on-line program with a first year teacher aide that didn't know Spanish. The students were all to work quietly on their chrome books. They were to "look busy" at all times. It was miserable. My child decided to run through the material as quickly as possible and finished the year's coursework in a semester. She got an "A". (she is a good test taker) After much protest, the district hired a Spanish teacher this year. Surprise! they are all behind where they should be after a year's computer instruction. They will be "reviewing" all first semester and cramming this year's lessons into second semester. Yes, a teacher's aide and paying for a computer course was "cheaper" than a credentialed teacher.