440px-HydraOrganization_HeadLike the mythical monster, the ancient Hydra organisation of Marvel Comics grows two more heads if one is cut off, becoming more powerful in the process. With the most advanced technology on the planet and with a particular focus on data gathering, Hydra operates through international corporations and highly-placed individuals in national governments.
Personalized learning has also been around for centuries. Its present incarnation can be traced to the individualized instructional programmes of the late 19th century which ‘focused on delivering specific subject matter […] based on the principles of scientific management. The intent was to solve the practical problems of the classroom by reducing waste and increasing efficiency, effectiveness, and cost containment in education (Januszewski, 2001: 58). Since then, personalized learning has adopted many different names, including differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, individually guided education, programmed instruction, personalized learning, personalized instruction, and individually prescribed instruction.
Disambiguating the terms has never been easy. In the world of language learning / teaching, it was observed back in the early 1970s ‘that there is little agreement on the description and definition of individualized foreign language instruction’ (Garfinkel, 1971: 379). The point was echoed a few years later by Grittner (1975: 323): it ‘means so many things to so many different people’. A UNESCO document (Chaix & O’Neil, 1978: 6) complained that ‘the term ‘individualization’ and the many expressions using the same root, such as ‘individualized learning’, are much too ambiguous’. Zoom forward to the present day and nothing has changed. Critiquing the British government’s focus on personalized learning, the Institute for Public Policy Research (Johnson, 2004: 17) wrote that it ‘remains difficult to be certain what the Government means by personalised learning’. In the U.S. context, a piece by Sean Cavanagh (2014) in Education Week (which is financially supported by the Gates Foundation) noted that although ‘the term “personalized learning” seems to be everywhere, there is not yet a shared understanding of what it means’. In short, as Arthur Levine  has put it, the words personalized learning ‘generate more heat than light’.
Despite the lack of clarity about what precisely personalized learning actually is, it has been in the limelight of language teaching and learning since before the 1930s when Pendleton (1930: 195) described the idea as being more widespread than ever before. Zoom forward to the 1970s and we find it described as ‘one of the major movements in second-language education at the present time’ (Chastain, 1975: 334). In 1971, it was described as ‘a bandwagon onto which foreign language teachers at all levels are jumping’ (Altman & Politzer, 1971: 6). A little later, in the 1980s, ‘words or phrases such as ‘learner-centered’, ‘student-centered’, ‘personalized’, ‘individualized’, and ‘humanized’ appear as the most frequent modifiers of ‘instruction’ in journals and conferences of foreign language education (Altman & James, 1980). Continue to the present day, and we find that personalized learning is at the centre of the educational policies of governments across the world. Between 2012 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Education threw over half a billion dollars at personalized learning initiatives (Bulger, 2016: 22). At the same time, there is massive sponsorship of personalized learning from the biggest international corporations (the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Rogers Family Foundation, Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation) (Bulger, 2016: 22). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested nearly $175 million in personalized learning development and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is ploughing billions of dollars into it.
There has, however, been one constant: the belief that technology can facilitate the process of personalization (whatever that might be). Technology appears to offer the potential to realise the goal of personalized learning. We have come a long way from Sydney Pressey’s attempts in the 1920s to use teaching machines to individualize instruction. At that time, the machines were just one part of the programme (and not the most important). But each new technology has offered a new range of possibilities to be exploited and each new technology, its advocates argue, ‘will solve the problems better than previous efforts’ (Ferster, 2014: xii). With the advent of data-capturing learning technologies, it has now become virtually impossible to separate advocacy of personalized instruction from advocacy of digitalization in education. As the British Department for Education has put it ‘central to personalised learning is schools’ use of data (DfES (2005) White Paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All. London, Department for Education and Skills, para 4.50). When the U.S. Department of Education threw half a billion dollars at personalized learning initiatives, the condition was that these projects ‘use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction’ (Bulger, 2016: 22).
Is it just a coincidence that the primary advocates of personalized learning are either vendors of technology or are very close to them in the higher echelons of Hydra (World Economic Forum, World Bank, IMF, etc.)? ‘Personalized learning’ has ‘almost no descriptive value’: it is ‘a term that sounds good without the inconvenience of having any obviously specific pedagogical meaning’ (Feldstein & Hill, 2016: 30). It evokes positive responses, with its ‘nod towards more student-centered learning […], a move that honors the person learning not just the learning institution’ (Watters, 2014). As such, it is ‘a natural for marketing purposes’ since nobody in their right mind would want unpersonalized or depersonalized learning (Feldstein & Hill, 2016: 25). It’s ‘a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy?’ (Chomsky, 1997).
None of the above is intended to suggest that there might not be goals that come under the ‘personalized learning’ umbrella that are worth working towards. But that’s another story – one I will return to in another post. For the moment, it’s just worth remembering that, in one of the Marvel Comics stories, Captain America, who appeared to be fighting the depersonalized evils of the world, was actually a deep sleeper agent for Hydra.

References
Altman, H.B. & James, C.V. (eds.) 1980. Foreign Language Teaching: Meeting Individual Needs. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Bulger, M. 2016. Personalized Learning: The Conversations We’re Not Having. New York: Data and Society Research Institute.
Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week
Chaix, P., & O’Neil, C. 1978. A Critical Analysis of Forms of Autonomous Learning (Autodidaxy and Semi-autonomy in the Field of Foreign Language Learning. Final Report. UNESCO Doc Ed 78/WS/58
Chastain, K. 1975. ‘An Examination of the Basic Assumptions of “Individualized” Instruction’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 334 – 344
Chomsky, N. 1997. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press
Feldstein, M. & Hill, P. 2016. ‘Personalized Learning: What it Really is and why it Really Matters’ EduCause Review March / April 2016: 25 – 35
Ferster, B. 2014. Teaching Machines. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Garfinkel, A. 1971. ‘Stanford University Conference on Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction, May 6-8, 1971.’ The Modern Language Journal Vol. 55, No. 6 (Oct., 1971), pp. 378-381
Grittner, F. M. 1975. ‘Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 323 – 333
Januszewski, A. 2001. Educational Technology: The Development of a Concept. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited
Johnson, M. 2004. Personalised Learning – an Emperor’s Outfit? London: Institute for Public Policy Research
Pendleton, C. S. 1930. ‘Personalizing English Teaching’ Peabody Journal of Education 7 / 4: 195 – 200
Watters, A. 2014. The problem with ‘personalization’ Hack Education

Advertisements
Comments
  1. alexcase says:

    Fascinating historical review, literally none of which I’d come across before. I’d be interested in hearing the relationship between all of that and the ESP approach.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s