Personalization without people?
Metiri Group is a proponent of digital teaching and learning and all of the advantages that such environments can provide to students and educators alike. We believe that there is room in the realm of teaching and learning for all sorts of innovations, including algorithm-based personalization. But we are also former teachers, thus the whole concept gives us a bit of pause. We admit that the phrase itself, however, gives us pause. Algorithm-based personalization suggests there’s a person involved. Obviously there’s a person on the development end, and on the receiving end, but some tend to picture the differentiation that we all have done in the classroom, and that we know teachers do every day for their students, and a digital device doesn’t fit always fit into that vision.
Automating personalization isn’t necessarily automatic
Personalization is about more than choosing materials at the right level, more than selecting content that’s exactly hard enough, it’s about knowing the student. It’s about providing content that’s motivating and interesting. It’s about having a secret sign to let the student know that he or she is doing a great job. Sometimes it’s about pushing them to do something that no algorithm would indicate they were ready for, but as teachers we were pretty sure with the right combination of peer collaboration, motivation, topic, and planetary alignment they could get there.
Were there times when we overestimated or underestimated what a student was capable of? Absolutely. But a computer only has one source of input to work with. As teachers, we have many—assessments, facial expression, time of day, mood, parent encouragement— as teachers in a physical classroom we knew so much more than any algorithm could. Should we use the software? Yes, but don’t let it take the place of the human being who can push a student to do things he or she never imagined. Balance is key, supervision is key, using data is key, and human contact is essential.
What personalization looks like
Here is an example shared by a fourth grade teacher in Georgia of differentiating products:
During a unit focused on helping students understand references to mythological characters in text, students were challenged to relate the topic to their own lives by creating their own mythological god or goddess and a phrase related to their character. In order to accommodate different learning styles, students chose the technology tool they would use that best presented their knowledge. To facilitate the process, the teacher provided task cards and audio files with directions for using a variety of technology tools, such as creating a Weebly site, using Google Docs and a microphone to speak their words onto the page instead of typing, using the Comic app to create their product, or using the SuperMii app on the iPad to create a picture of their god or goddess. Regardless of their tool choice, students had a rubric to guide them in creating a product to meet the standards set by the teacher. The teacher initiated conversations with individual students throughout the process, helping them make decisions about which tools to use or what content to include. Many students used more than one tool to create the final product. The end result was a wide variety of products that demonstrated students’ knowledge of how mythology impacts language and their ability to convey ideas clearly.