It’s international ELT conference season again, with TESOL Chicago having just come to a close and IATEFL Brighton soon to start. I decided to take a look at how the subject of personalized learning will be covered at the second of these. Taking the conference programme , I trawled through looking for references to my topic.

Jing_word_cloudMy first question was: how do conference presenters feel about personalised learning? One way of finding out is by looking at the adjectives that are found in close proximity. This is what you get.

The overall enthusiasm is even clearer when the contexts are looked at more closely. Here are a few examples:

  • inspiring assessment, personalising learning
  • personalised training can contribute to professionalism and […] spark ideas for teacher trainers
  • a personalised educational experience that ultimately improves learner outcomes
  • personalised teacher development: is it achievable?

Particularly striking is the complete absence of anything that suggests that personalized learning might not be a ‘good thing’. The assumption throughout is that personalized learning is desirable and the only question that is asked is how it can be achieved. Unfortunately (and however much we might like to believe that it is a ‘good thing’), there is a serious lack of research evidence which demonstrates that this is the case. I have written about this here and here and here . For a useful summary of the current situation, see Benjamin Riley’s article where he writes that ‘it seems wise to ask what evidence we presently have that personalized learning works. Answer: Virtually none. One remarkable aspect of the personalized-learning craze is how quickly the concept has spread despite the almost total absence of rigorous research in support of it, at least thus far.’

Given that personalized learning can mean so many things and given the fact that people do not have space to define their terms in their conference abstracts, it is interesting to see what other aspects of language learning / teaching it is associated with. The four main areas are as follows (in alphabetical order):

  • assessment (especially formative assessment) / learning outcomes
  • continuous professional development
  • learner autonomy
  • technology / blended learning

The IATEFL TD SIG would appear to be one of the main promoters of personalized learning (or personalized teacher development) with a one-day pre-conference event entitled ‘Personalised teacher development – is it achievable?’ and a ‘showcase’ forum entitled ‘Forum on Effective & personalised: the holy grail of CPD’. Amusingly (but coincidentally, I suppose), the forum takes place in the ‘Cambridge room’ (see below).

I can understand why the SIG organisers may have chosen this focus. It’s something of a hot topic, and getting hotter. For example:

  • Cambridge University Press has identified personalization as one of the ‘six key principles of effective teacher development programmes’ and is offering tailor-made teacher development programmes for institutions.
  • NILE and Macmillan recently launched a partnership whose brief is to ‘curate personalised professional development with an appropriate mix of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning delivered online, blended and face to face’.
  • Pearson has developed the Pearson’s Teacher Development Interactive (TDI) – ‘an interactive online course to train and certify teachers to deliver effective instruction in English as a foreign language […] You can complete each module on your own time, at your own pace from anywhere you have access to the internet.’

These examples do not, of course, provide any explanation for why personalized learning is a hot topic, but the answer to that is simple. Money. Billions and billions, and if you want a breakdown, have a look at the appendix of Monica Bulger’s report, ‘Personalized Learning: The Conversations We’re Not Having’ . Starting with Microsoft and the Gates Foundation plus Facebook and the Chan / Zuckerberg Foundation, dozens of venture philanthropists have thrown unimaginable sums of money at the idea of personalized learning. They have backed up their cash with powerful lobbying and their message has got through. Consent has been successfully manufactured.

PearsonOne of the most significant players in this field is Pearson, who have long been one of the most visible promoters of personalized learning (see the screen capture). At IATEFL, two of the ten conference abstracts which include the word ‘personalized’ are directly sponsored by Pearson. Pearson actually have ten presentations they have directly sponsored or are very closely associated with. Many of these do not refer to personalized learning in the abstract, but would presumably do so in the presentations themselves. There is, for example, a report on a professional development programme in Brazil using TDI (see above). There are two talks about the GSE, described as a tool ‘used to provide a personalised view of students’ language’. The marketing intent is clear: Pearson is to be associated with personalized learning (which is, in turn, associated with a variety of tech tools) – they even have a VP of data analytics, data science and personalized learning.

But the direct funding of the message is probably less important these days than the reinforcement, by those with no vested interests, of the set of beliefs, the ideology, which underpin the selling of personalized learning products. According to this script, personalized learning can promote creativity, empowerment, inclusiveness and preparedness for the real world of work. It sets itself up in opposition to lockstep and factory models of education, and sets learners free as consumers in a world of educational choice. It is a message with which it is hard for many of us to disagree.

manufacturing consentIt is also a marvellous example of propaganda, of the way that consent is manufactured. (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s probably time to read Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’.) An excellent account of the way that consent for personalized learning has been manufactured can be found at Benjamin Doxtdator’s blog .

So, a hot topic it is, and its multiple inclusion in the conference programme will no doubt be welcomed by those who are selling ‘personalized’ products. It must be very satisfying to see how normalised the term has become, how it’s no longer necessary to spend too much on promoting the idea, how it’s so associated with technology, (formative) assessment, autonomy and teacher development … since others are doing it for you.

  1. Chris Ożóg says:

    Excellent post – thank you for writing. Your blog is one of my favourites out there, out there being my personalised Internet space.

    The biggest problem for me with personalisation is that, as you allude to, there’s no agreed definition of it. It can mean anything from making a gap-fill about your learner to bespoke CPD. I suspect the money is more interested in the latter but, like ‘communicative’ (a term frequently lurking nearby), it’s all things to all people and as such can become quite meaningless.

  2. meahunt says:

    I am reminded of vehement reactions 10 years ago from a group of in-company learners (IT experts) on being told that English training was switching from weekly group classes (with teacher) to an online, independent eLearning tool. They basically said they would not be participating in the new wave of EFL training provision. They wanted to hang onto the social, group learning situation – and this was a 7am weekly class!

  3. I’m surprised there are no links in the abstracts of personalisation to motivation or engagement, which for me would be a key factor when talking about personalising language learning. Perhaps I’m coming at it from the wrong angle – as you rightly say, there are numerous ideas of what personalisation actually means.
    Thanks for an engaging Friday evening read!

    • philipjkerr says:

      Dear Teresa
      Many thanks for commenting. You raise an issue which is top of my ‘interest list’ at the moment. In the world of language teaching, the connection between personalization and motivation or engagement is, I think, almost taken for granted. In the introduction to Griffiths & Keohane’s ‘Personalizing Language Learning’ (CUP, 2000), for example, the authors argue that the need for personalization in language teaching comes from the need for language learning content to be personally meaningful: in the absence of personally meaningful content, there is likely to be less personal involvement, and therefore less motivation, and therefore less success in the language learning enterprise. It is an essentially humanistic approach: one that, I think, is shared by most ELT professionals. This kind of personalization (personalized content) is only one aspect of personalization, of course … and it’s not one that is especially foregrounded in the the discourse of the current global advocates of personalization (Zuckerberg et al), although it’s certainly not something they would disagree with. Maybe not too high priority, though …
      My unanswered question (to myself) is this: however much it may seem self-evident that personalized content leads to enhanced motivation, what kind of evidence is there that this is actually the case? If there is affirmative evidence, how robust is it? And if so, to what extent and in which contexts do we see gains in motivation and engagement? Lastly, how long-term are any gains in motivation (if in fact there are any)? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping to find out before too long. I believe that Zoltan Dornyei and Sarah Mercer are working on a book about engagement at the moment – I hope they’ll be exploring these questions.
      Best wishes

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