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‘If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow’. So goes the quotation attributed, likely falsely, to John Dewey. It has served as a rallying call for those who celebrate the integration of new technology in the classroom. But what is the cost of diving headfirst into new educational practices? And how can we make sure that what we implement in the classroom is really there to help students and teachers, instead of just being the ‘bright and shiny’ fad of the day?

‘Personalised learning’ has become a buzzword in education, attracting support from high-profile venture philanthropists including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. The implementation of personalised learning is facing increasing scrutiny, however, in November, students in Brooklyn walked out in protest at the Zuckerberg-funded Summit Learning Program. Their objection: students being tethered to a computer screen for hours on end, with little input from teachers who, for their part, were reduced to the role of ‘facilitators’. The ideals of personalised learning appear to be getting lost in the details of implementation.

Personalised learning is, at heart, about tailoring education to the student. It is motivated by the belief that education has been stuck in a ‘factory model’ that is focused on a mythical ‘average student’. As Todd Rose, President of the Center for Individual Opportunity at Harvard, points out, ‘every student has a jagged learning profile’, and our one-size-fits-all models of instruction are not currently equipped to meet their diverse learning needs.

This is where personalised learning, enabled by technology, comes in. By continuously assessing students and deploying algorithms to target content according to their specific needs and abilities, these technologies possess a remarkable capacity to replicate the experience of one-to-one human tutoring. There has been some evidence already that these systems can significantly improve learning outcomes.

A fatal assumption of programs such as Summit Learning is that personalised learning does begin and end with technology. The problem arises when we crowd out more traditional mainstays of teaching like peer-learning, group discussion, and the teacher-student relationship in favour of technologies that, by themselves, can be isolating.

There is far more to personalised learning than digital products alone can capture. Caring for a child’s personal educational needs includes allowing them to learn socially, form a proper bond with the teacher, and benefit from discussion with their peers. Virtual tutors can play their role by allowing students to progress through core material at their own pace. But the thinking skills imparted by these technologies remain limited; no virtual tutor yet exists that can do the full breadth and depth of learning, despite what the headlines might say.  Dewey’s quote should resonate because if the sum total of learning is reduced to virtual tutoring, students will not acquire those deeper cognitive skills that are required of them in today’s world.

Personalised learning does not actually have its origins in technology, and those involved in education and teaching, need to make sure it does not become reduced to a purely technological approach.

Personalised learning has much to offer, but only if we recognise that it comes as part of a greater whole. As one commentator has said, it is time to ‘take personalised learning back’ and integrate it with all other facets of the education experience. In other words, personalised learning must account for all moments of instruction, online and offline. It must work for teachers as well as students, otherwise, it is doomed to alienate both.

Technology providers must embrace this sharper definition of personalised learning that integrates with all facets of learning and teaching. As the students of Brooklyn have shown us, any technology that fails to empower students and teachers will be consigned to the dustbin of educational gimmicks.

By: Dr Junaid Mubeen

Dr Junaid Mubeen, Director of Education at Whizz Education, holds a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University, a master’s degree in Education from Harvard, and is also a Countdown series champion.