Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

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Sometimes it seems that education policy is nothing but a series of scams and frauds that becomes untenable in one generation only to pop up again 10 or 20 years later with a new name.


Take Personalized Learning, the latest digital product from the ed-tech industry to invade your local public school.


It’s cutting edge stuff.


Except that it isn’t.


It’s just the same old correspondence school nonsense of the 1980s thrown onto an iPad or a laptop.


It was crap back then, and it’s crap today.


But it sounds nice.


Personalized Learning.


I like that.


That’s exactly the kind of educational experience I want for my own daughter.


I’d like her schooling to be tailor-made for her. Teach her in a way she can best understand and that will best engage her mind and build upon her competencies.


However, that’s not what Personalized Learning means.


It’s a euphemism for Competency Based Education or Outcome Based Education.


It means plopping a child in front of a computer screen for hours on end while she takes standardized tests and standardized test look-alikes on-line.


Cartoon avatars lecture students how to answer multiple-choice questions in mind numbing detail before making them go through endless drill-and-kill practice. If kids don’t get a question right, they do it again-and-again until they do.


And somehow this is personalized?


I’ll give you a little tip. You can’t have personal learning without people.


This is personalized the same way Angry Birds and Candy Crush is personalized. Except it’s way less fun – and much higher stakes.


Imagine if all of your classes were taught at the end of an automated help line. That’s really what this is:


“If you don’t understand because you need me to define a word, press 1.


If you don’t understand because you need me to explain punctuation, press 2.


If you don’t understand because you need the question repeated…”


What if your question isn’t on the menu? You have no recourse other than to just keep pushing buttons until you hit the one that’s supposedly “correct”.


Forget for a moment how ineffective that is. Just imagine how boring it is for a growing child.


Nothing stifles a young person’s natural curiosity more than being forced to suffer through hours of tedium.


And what’s worse, we already know this.


We’ve tried this kind of garbage before with similar results.


Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on, especially education.


This opened the floodgates to for-profit corporations to offer mail order correspondence courses with little to no accountability but funded by the federal government.

For nearly a decade, student aide systems were systemically pillaged and looted by unscrupulous vendors offering correspondence schools as a trendy alternative for trade schools and credit recovery programs. They charged hefty tuition and fees for nothing more than sending students boilerplate instructional materials, multiple choice tests, and worthless diplomas in the mail.


The blatant fraud was documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the hearings held by then-Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. This lead to eliminating correspondence schools from participation in federal aide programs.


Congress realized that sending students a book wasn’t the same as actually teaching them.


But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, things began to change. With the popularization of the Internet, the defunct business model could rebrand itself simply by offering similar materials on-line. And after significant lobbying efforts over the subsequent decades, Congress conveniently forgot its objections to almost the same kind of fraud.


However, this kind of malfeasance was at first mostly confined to credit recovery programs and on-line colleges. In K-12 this was primarily a way for students who had already failed a grade to pass the required core courses over the summer on-line. It was a way to boost graduation rates or even provide resources for students to get a G.E.D.


The poor quality of these programs has been demonstrated time and again.


But instead of limiting, fixing or eliminating them, we’re pushing them into the public school system.


This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.


The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.


Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.


In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.


In effect, the year-end high stakes test can be entirely forgotten. Students are given a standardized test every day. Even those whose parents opt them out of the federal assessment have no escape because the tests have become the curriculum, itself.


And all the while tech companies are raking in the cash.


Education policy is not concerned with how best to teach children. It is about how best to open the trough of tax dollars to education corporations – book publishers, test manufacturers and now tech companies.


Meanwhile, the public has almost no idea what’s going on.


Educators are sounding the alarm, but well-paid corporate shills are trying to silence them as being anti-progress.


Calling out bad educational practices conducted on a computer is not Ludditism. Certainly there are better ways to use the technology to help students learn than THIS.


Moreover, there are plenty of things from the ‘80s that deserve being revisited – new wave music, romantic comedies, even the old Rubik’s cube.


But putting crappy correspondence colleges on-line!?


No, thank you.

22 thoughts on “Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

  1. This idea is much farther along than we think, in fact there are already 4 million kids in public school being biometrically monitored and datamined in real time.

    Aside from the technology aspect, there is also a new economic model on the rise which will redirect funding based on a “parent trigger” to firms that provide things like “A.I. tutors” or “digital sherpas” which will collect copious data to demonstrate “success” as the act of learning is monetized.

    This is what is behind the phrase “school choice” and as Facebook proprietor Mark Zuckerberg has already announced, it will be a bold new frontier full of personalized learning, campaign donations and revolving door politicians.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Real personalized learning (not “PL products”) requires more people, not fewer. Meanwhile, those advocating for true personalized learning, where students aren’t forced into a rigid, pre-determined curriculum and expected to achieve independent mastery using identical resources but instead have a rich variety of experiences and teacher interaction, are forced to abandon the term or be attacked.


  3. What we have to keep in mind is that there was no cloud-based computing 20 years ago. There also was not a system for extracting profit from student data. That is why what is happening now is so scary. It is happening very quickly. In order to understand it, people need to understand the role global financial markets are playing in pushing education onto digital platforms where it can be monitored ALL THE TIME. Not just for “accountability” but to assess return on investments that will be forthcoming from impact investors via social impact bonds. “Recent “philanthropic” interest in universal pre-kindergarten, early literacy interventions and post-graduation plans (college, career, military or certifications) does not stem from some benevolent impulse. Rather it is about creating opportunities to embed digital frameworks into our education systems that reduce children’s lives to datasets. Once education is simplified as 1s and 0s, global finance will be well-positioned to speculate (gamble) on the future prospects of any given child, school, or district.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Both of my children are/were in a middle school that had/has an IPad pilot program (pilot over but the hardware is still being used at the school….nightmare all around!). I was never keen on the idea and wondered why our school was chosen for the project. I suspect it was because we had a very large number of FARM students. To those parents, the prospect of their child being provided a free IPad by the school system seemed like a great idea and something that as parents, they were not able to afford for their child. The majority of the upper-middle class parents didn’t seem to care one way or the other. The few of us that had questions and doubts were/are always deemed to be wearing the “tin foil hat”. I don’t know why the pilot wasn’t expanded and I’m glad that it didn’t, but at the same time the BYOD rule was put into play at the HS level (again a nightmare). The whole county spent billions of dollars to make the county and all of it’s gov’t entities completely computer- abled (I’m not very computer literate but I think it was referred to as IC?). I’m waiting for what is right around the corner with all of this and I don’t have good feelings about it either. I’ll wear my “tin foil hat” with pride and do what is best for my children the best that I can because I know what the ultimate goal is. I’m sorry, but the rest of them can just stay uninformed and suffer their consequences in the end. I feel most sorry for the poor children whose parents don’t know better and don’t have the resources or education to make an informed decision about any of this. Experimenting on kids is wrong….but experimenting on poor children is worse than wrong….it’s deplorable.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A couple of years ago I happened upon a link to a blog called Hack Education. Thinking it was about hacking in my very simplistic understanding of the activity at the time, I clicked on it. Turns out it is a blog by a woman named Audry Watters who has been on to the “ed” tech scheme for years and keeps a running account of all the companies, how much they raise in funds from venture capital companies, who’s buying whom, and everything else you could want to know about this part of our country’s economy. She also writes beautifully and speaks frequently at all manner of education institutions and conferences. She connects it all to pigeons and how they were experimented on and trained to help in war efforts. It can be a bit overwhelming but it is an amazing resource on this subject.


  6. Her name is spelled Audrey, with an e, not Audry as I misspelled it. You can find the blog by “googling” it.


  7. […] The best path to becoming a truly educated person involves human interaction and mentorship. You need experienced professional educators who use the empirical evidence they see in the classroom about your child to tailor lessons to their needs. The wealthy would never dream of making their children learn from the academic equivalent of an automated check out aisle or telemarketer robocall. […]


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