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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.

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I mentioned the issue of privacy very briefly in Part 9 of the ‘Guide’, and it seems appropriate to take a more detailed look.

Adaptive learning needs big data. Without the big data, there is nothing for the algorithms to work on, and the bigger the data set, the better the software can work. Adaptive language learning will be delivered via a platform, and the data that is generated by the language learner’s interaction with the English language program on the platform is likely to be only one, very small, part of the data that the system will store and analyse. Full adaptivity requires a psychometric profile for each student.

It would make sense, then, to aggregate as much data as possible in one place. Besides the practical value in massively combining different data sources (in order to enhance the usefulness of the personalized learning pathways), such a move would possibly save educational authorities substantial amounts of money and allow educational technology companies to mine the rich goldmine of student data, along with the standardised platform specifications, to design their products.

And so it has come to pass. The Gates Foundation (yes, them again) provided most of the $100 million funding. A division of Murdoch’s News Corp built the infrastructure. Once everything was ready, a non-profit organization called inBloom was set up to run the thing. The inBloom platform is open source and the database was initially free, although this will change. Preliminary agreements were made with 7 US districts and involved millions of children. The data includes ‘students’ names, birthdates, addresses, social security numbers, grades, test scores, disability status, attendance, and other confidential information’ (Ravitch, D. ‘Reign of Error’ NY: Knopf, 2013, p. 235-236). Under federal law, this information can be ‘shared’ with private companies selling educational technology and services.

The edtech world rejoiced. ‘This is going to be a huge win for us’, said one educational software provider; ‘it’s a godsend for us,’ said another. Others are not so happy. If the technology actually works, if it can radically transform education and ‘produce game-changing outcomes’ (as its proponents claim so often), the price to be paid might just conceivably be worth paying. But the price is high and the research is not there yet. The price is privacy.

The problem is simple. InBloom itself acknowledges that it ‘cannot guarantee the security of the information stored… or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.’ Experience has already shown us that organisations as diverse as the CIA or the British health service cannot protect their data. Hackers like a good challenge. So do businesses.

The anti-privatization (and, by extension, the anti-adaptivity) lobby in the US has found an issue which is resonating with electors (and parents). These dissenting voices are led by Class Size Matters, and their voice is being heard. Of the original partners of inBloom, only one is now left. The others have all pulled out, mostly because of concerns about privacy, although the remaining partner, New York, involves personal data on 2.7 million students, which can be shared without any parental notification or consent.

inbloom-student-data-bill-gates

This might seem like a victory for the anti-privatization / anti-adaptivity lobby, but it is likely to be only temporary. There are plenty of other companies that have their eyes on the data-mining opportunities that will be coming their way, and Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ program means that the inBloom controversy will be only a temporary setback. ‘The reality is that it’s going to be done. It’s not going to be a little part. It’s going to be a big part. And it’s going to be put in place partly because it’s going to be less expensive than doing professional development,’ says Eva Baker of the Center for the Study of Evaluation at UCLA.

It is in this light that the debate about adaptive learning becomes hugely significant. Class Size Matters, the odd academic like Neil Selwyn or the occasional blogger like myself will not be able to reverse a trend with seemingly unstoppable momentum. But we are, collectively, in a position to influence the way these changes will take place.

If you want to find out more, check out the inBloom and Class Size Matters links. And you might like to read more from the news reports which I have used for information in this post. Of these, the second was originally published by Scientific American (owned by Macmillan, one of the leading players in ELT adaptive learning). The third and fourth are from Education Week, which is funded in part by the Gates Foundation.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/03/us-education-database-idUSBRE92204W20130303

http://www.salon.com/2013/08/01/big_data_puts_teachers_out_of_work_partner/

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/01/08/15inbloom_ep.h33.html

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/marketplacek12/2013/12/new_york_battle_over_inBloom_data_privacy_heading_to_court.html