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ISTE’s membership magazine, Learning & Leading with Technology (L&L), features practical ideas for using today's digital tools to improve learning and teaching and for appropriately integrating technology into classrooms, curricula and administration.

Issue: May 2014

POINT/COUNTERPOINT: Can Learning Be Too Personalized?

Aug 1, 2013, 17:45 PM
By Michael Peters and John Hendron

Today, virtually all information we consume is customized for us. In his influential book and TED talk, Eli Pariser describes the phenomenon of the “filter bubble,” where algorithms in search engines and social networks make judgments about our needs, desires, and beliefs to deliver an individualized internet experience. 

This is convenient when Google knows you are planning a vacation and delivers information about your destination. But it becomes problematic when your newsfeed gives you only the political perspectives you already agree with, editing out opposing viewpoints. 

Education can fall into a very similar trap. Today, the usual suspects in “big education,” as well as disruptive interlopers like Khan Academy, are lining up to provide sophisticated technological tools to assess our students and deliver highly individualized solutions for their learning needs. On the surface, this notion is difficult to argue against. Of course teachers ought to take the individualized needs of students into account. Of course education is best served by tapping into every student’s unique interests and perspectives. 

But this total focus on the individual can create another sort of filter bubble—one that emphasizes the things that make us different rather than what we have in common. It minimizes the value of working together and sharing a common experience. We seem to have lost touch with a basic truth: We may all be unique individuals, but fundamentally humans are social creatures. It is the way we live, work, and learn. 

Perhaps we are approaching the point where technology can do a decent job assessing a student’s skill gaps and delivering a program to address them. But this doesn’t really authentically simulate an environment where real-world problems are solved. In the real world, we most often solve problems collectively, in groups, teams, communities, and societies. 

Education is only truly successful insofar as it can prepare us for applying our individual talents while working with others. This often means putting aside our individual needs. We don’t usually get to choose our colleagues, preferred learning style, schedule, or how our work is assessed. 

Clearly, educators should care about the individual needs of their students. We may wish to nurture individual talent, creativity, even genius. To that end, some individualized education is appropriate. But as a technology-focused educator, I am most excited about tools that enable us to work together and collaborate in new and innovative ways.

—Michael Peters is the upper school digital learning facilitator at the International School of Prague. Prior to that, he was a technology integration specialist at the American School of Guatemala and an elementary school teacher in Canada. 


I do not believe that learning can ever become too personalized. While education from a state, national, or international perspective is concerned with national and global trends—such as building a viable workforce that can compete globally in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers—education from the local, district, or school level should be far less focused on aggregated trends. So we must decide: Should we meet the needs of our communities or our country, or should we meet the needs of each child? 

Of course, there are some things that we have to learn that society deems important. For instance, we wouldn’t give a student a driver’s license unless she’d been through some sort of driver education program, despite her disinterest in learning the rules of the road. 

And we’d be unethical educators if we didn’t give kids opportunities to face real and simulated challenges, including those that forced them to collaborate with their peers. Personalized education may mean that we cater to student strengths, and it may mean we customize curricula based on a student’s interests. But it doesn’t mean that we have to disrespect the wisdom that you always know what you need to know. 

John Dewey’s vision of learning through experiences in the real world still resonates today as a reminder that we can be doing more to make learning more authentic and meaningful to students. To achieve personalized learning, in fact, we should be doing several things: 

• We should have regular dialogue with students about their learning and their progress. 
• We should get to know all of our students, including their strengths, weaknesses, and interests. 
• We should continually strive to challenge our students in the interest of maximizing their growth in learning while they’re with us. 
• We should continually ask at the local, regional, and national levels if we’re doing all we can to deliver high-quality learning experiences for students. 

Personalizing education doesn’t mean making it less authentic or overly simplistic. I’m not convinced that we—or the technology—are there yet to do the idea service. But if personalized learning can positively influence student engagement during the formative years, we’d at least be preparing them for a lifelong openness to curiosity and enlightenment.

— John Hendron received the Making IT Happen Award in December 2012 from the Virginia Society for Technology in Education. He’s a doctoral candidate in education leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA. 
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