Last year, when the notion of “personalized learning” started to become a popular topic here in British Columbia, I questioned its practicality. I asked how a secondary teacher could possibly create, supervise and assess 200 or so separate learning programs for his or her students. I concluded that teachers couldn’t possibly pull off such a feat – a feat that would almost defy the laws of physics – and that schools would have to offer pre-packaged curriculum from providers such as local distance education schools, Open School, or private sector education companies like Pearson. At best, students would get photocopied worksheet packages from their teachers… but how is that progress?
Yesterday, an interesting letter was published in the Victoria Times-Colonist. The writer, a teacher named Werner Liedtke, explained his observations of a personalized learning program in Alberta. The program used a “canned” program from the United States called Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI), a program that dates back to the 1960’s.
Liedtke’s opinion of the program is not positive. He argues that teachers are reduced to clerks: “The teacher and four volunteers that I observed in one classroom did nothing but mark tests, record results and direct students to the next tests.” He concludes that students lose out as well, since the possibility of group interaction is eliminated.
And, really, how can it be otherwise? If learning is personalized, teachers can’t possibly create (or co-create) individualized programs for each child; they have to rely on pre-built curricula. And teachers’ time has to be consumed by the administration of a very inefficient system, because a student’s particular program needs to be administered, by definition, on a one-on-one basis. One-on-one sounds great, but how can it compete with the efficiency of one-on-thirty?
If my prediction is correct, and the government doesn’t change its mind about “net zero” funding, then we arrive at a very attenuated conception of personalized learning. Students might learn at their own pace, but they would still be learning from the same packages as everyone else (unless the school system, or parents, can afford supplementary curriculum). In addition, unless we open the deadlines for course completion beyond the standard end-of-June finish date, even individualized pacing really isn’t significant; all we’ll see is a massive crush of students desperately trying to finish in the last few weeks. In the distance education world this last minute “jamming” is a well known phenomenon. On the whole, pacing doesn’t come close to the promise of personalized learning, and may itself be cancelled by deadlines and the lack of interaction inherent in any system where students learn at their own pace.
So thank you Mr. Liedtke. You have provided another example of why the allure of personalized learning doesn’t satisfy the demand for realism.