Your Name and Title: Elliot Washor

School or Organization Name: Big Picture Learning

Co-Presenter Name(s): n/a

Area of the World from Which You Will Present: Big Picture Learning's Annual Big Bang Conference, Las Vegas, NV

Language in Which You Will Present: English

Target Audience(s): Educators, Foundations, Policy Makers

Short Session Description (one line): Personalization in the Real World

Full Session Description (as long as you would like):


Are you with me now? 

What do you mean by personalization?

"When the information network promises to eliminate any reason to travel or to touch something palpable other than a keyboard or a mouse, we search all the more intensely for the personal and the tactile." 

- Ralph Caplan

The way educators and business people are now using the terms personalized learning or personalization is really baffling me. There have been loads of articles and books written about how Big Picture Learning  continues to be at the forefront of innovation because of how well we strive to know our students. In a recent book, Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe, by the Innovation Unit - a Team of GELP, we are featured as a non-profit organization “providing students with a personalized learning experience driven by their passions and anchored in internships out in the community.”

I have been in schools and with organizations that want to work with us because they want to get better at personalizing their schools and knowing their students better, but what do people mean by

personalization? A recent article in the New Yorker on Amazon by George Packer pointed out that to Amazon personalization means collecting data analytics and statistical probability. A group called the Personalization team (P13N) comprised of engineers at Amazon employ algorithms that use customers’ histories to recommend future purchases,  and in the near future, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reported that our packages from Amazonia will soon be delivered by drones.

So with all of this technology, where is the person and the personal in personalization? I got curious about this question and found out that when Bezos was asked: What's the ultimate in personalization? He responded, "When you go into a bar and sit down and the bartender puts a whiskey in front of you without having to ask what you want." For me, this begs the simple question, what if you changed your mind and want something else? How would the bartender know? What a waste of a drink. 

The digital technology world, including many in education technology, wants personalization to mean that technologies anticipate what you need next and digitally deliver it on a massive scale to each and every student. As Packer points out, to Amazon engineers all content is mockingly referred to verbage, like garbage. It just doesn’t matter what the content is because to them it is all the same.

Since our beginnings, personalization has been at the core of our work. We strive for schools to be communities where every student is known through their interests, academics and how they are doing socially and emotionally in and outside of school. Here the twist is that the student is known well because it is the student who tells and the teacher who listens and observes rather than adults who are only telling what they know or suggesting what you need to know.

In this real time environment, there are lots of variables to how, when, what, and why a student learns. These variables change all the time and they are hard to measure and hard to predict. The good news is that this keeps all of us engaged and on our toes. Figuring out things is what we are good at as humans. It makes everyone a part of a community that listens, observes, and communicates.

Structures in schools — like personalized learning plans that start with each student’s voice, choice, and interests where parents, teachers, and mentors are involved in understanding and developing the next steps, courses, and projects a student will do ‑— need to be part of any learning environment and can become a great digital technology platform. Instead  what we get is a hijacking of words and terms that sound like education is personalized. Sadly, the real practice these words symbolize is missing from far too many schools and most digital platforms.

Much more than a prediction or some standardized pre-formatted lesson plan of what is next for a student, personalized learning is complex and variable where teachers, students, and mentors in the process pay attention to multiple measures and high standards coming from school and the world at-large. This is deeper learning that includes academics, social/emotional, and 21st century skills.

These dual meanings of personalization from the business and education worlds create lots of issues. Algorithms and school brands replace human relationships. Qualitative assessments are cast aside because they take longer to do and are deemed too expensive. But this is precisely what personalizing learning is.

International assessments report that if students are not challenged appropriately or do not have real choices, they will become bored and disengaged. And although state and school assessments done appropriately are important, the most powerful forms of assessment are about what matters to the student from people who know them well and their own self-assessments. No algorithm can perform this way.

We have to decide. Do you want Godfather style personalization? "It’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business.”

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