Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Personalized Learning: Modest Gains, Big Challenges, RAND Study Finds

"Personalized learning" is a trendy topic right now.  A multi-year RAND analysis that the Gates Foundation that you can read in full here is behind this large study of 40 schools that have embraced the idea of personalized learning (PL) defined as:
  • Learner profiles, which provide a record of each student's "strengths, needs, motivations, progress, and goals;"
  • Personal learning paths, which allow for variability in the content and instructional approaches that each student experiences;
  • Competency-based progressions, in which each student's progress is determined by mastery of key skills and ideas; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which schools can adapt their use of staff, space, and time in order to support greater personalization.
 Net effect?  Modest gains.  Based on what this piece suggests, this study was otherwise blind to cultural, social, economic, and political dynamics that inform the schooling process.  Some think that these gains are sufficient to move forward with the personalized learning agenda.  I think so, too, because PL isn't just a variable of interest, but an important value that should inform ALL student learning.  However, how they define and theorize it is key.  

I think that they would get much more bang for their buck if they went beyond their focus on "minority students from low income families" receiving PL and defined it to include programs that implement Ethnic Studies and bilingual education since these approaches, if well designed, staffed, and remunerated, are already second to none in terms of what the research says. 

What makes them "personalized" is that they speak at once, albeit to varying degrees, to the personal and social, political, cultural, and economic aspects and dimensions of being bilingual, as well as members of ethnic and racial groups in U.S. society.  The research community needs to read the Ethnic Studies and bilingual education research literature before they invest another trillion into this research trajectory.  Schools that implement authentic assessment is another area worth incorporating in light of its known successes.

Though not surprising, it's still odd to me that such highly germane concerns like race, ethnicity, language, difference, and power are left entirely out of the equation. We should have learned by now the limits of de-contextualized, abstracted empiricism and methodological individualism which fail to systematically take structures and interlocking systems of oppression into account at the outset, rather than at the end as a policy implication based on teacher reports of structural difficulties in implementing personalized learning environments.  (Where's my yawn emoji?)  This stubborn myopia pervades so much education research.  When will they learn?

Angela Valenzuela

Personalized Learning: Modest Gains, Big Challenges, RAND Study Finds

PL-Social-Emotional-Amity-Elementary-Blog.jpgThere's new evidence to suggest that customizing instruction for every student can generate modest gains in math and reading scores, according to a report released today by the RAND Corp.
Despite the promising signs, though, the researchers behind the most comprehensive ongoing study to date of personalized learning describe their latest findings as a "cautionary tale" about a trend whose popularity—and backing from philanthropists, venture capitalists, and the ed-tech industry—far outpaces its evidence base.
"It's important to set expectations," John F. Pane, a senior scientist and the distinguished chair in education innovation at RAND, said in an interview. "This may not work everywhere, and it requires careful thought about the context that enables it to work well."
Pane is a lead author of "Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects," the third and most recent study in a multi-year RAND analysis being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation has provided support in the past for coverage of personalized learning in Education Week.)

How Personalized Learning Plays Out in Reality

In the world of K-12 education, personalized learning generally means using software and other digital technologies to tailor instruction to each student's strengths and weaknesses, interests and preferences, and optimal pace of learning. The idea has gained significant traction with groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given more than $300 million to related initiatives since 2009, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which says it intends to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually into efforts to bring its own vision of personalized learning to scale.
Research evidence to date has been thin, however.
And on the ground, the RAND team found that personalized learning remains hard to distinguish, harder to implement, and even harder to expand and replicate across schools.  Continue reading here.

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