When you’re marketing a new product, new words are needed and right wording is everything. Personalization is the newest word. There is nothing personal about it. It’s not personal or evocative; it sounds just like the fresh corporate jargon it is. It’s mildly creepy. It’s about as personalized as having your own name on an identical bottle of coke.
There are plenty of people throwing personalization into whatever soup they’re selling. There are graphic charts showing why personalization is better than those close, already over-commodified words like differentiation and individualization. (This chart by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey explains how personalization is the new jam that is better than the old jam.) Personalization is going hard. You can expect that it will shake like salt into whatever new newness is coming for your classroom or your child’s classroom. And… sooner or later, if you pay attention, you might notice that not everyone is using personalization in the same way.
One Kind of Personalization
In his article on its different incarnations, Education professor Yong Zhao positions this newest word to mean pretty much whatever you want it to mean. It’s so personalized that even the meaning is personal. In Zhao’s case, personalization is working with each child as a person who has interests, needs, aptitudes, and preferences that can be leveraged to help educate her. He distinguishes between the various strategies of personalization by adding a clarifying prepositional phrase or an adjective onto each variation. Teachers can leverage what they knows about each child to determine how fast or slow to proceed, what type of learning,what kind of creation, where each child learns, what they are good at and what they like the most. He calls this personalization of pace, product, content, and learning environment. As well as strength based personalization and interest based personalization. Sounds pretty good, right… if maybe a little industrial. Personalization could almost speak to a parent’s wish for their child’s learning to be individual, thoughtfully determined, co-created with just their child in mind… meeting real needs, developing multiple skills, and exercising her unique voice and interests. From this point of view, Zhao’s article is a good read for framing student choice, process and product. It reminds practitioners of the several ways to address learning and demonstration of learning. Obviously, personalized learning requires low class size, plenty of time, diverse offerings, high quality infrastructure, talented teachers and all the resources. Sound expensive? No worries. Silicon Valley has the answer.
Another Kind of Personalization
Here is where Zhao is careful to remind us that he doesn’t mean that other kind of personalization. He is not referring to “the narrow view of personalized learning driven by big data.” His definition of personalization is not one where the child is put in front of a computer all day collecting badges for narrow aptitudes while the computer personalizes her menu of choices from a set of personalized choices. But, here is also where it gets tricky. Personalization can mean opposite things. It’s a kind of verbal tofu… the educational equivalent of soft serve, tempeh, and a tofu veggie burger. It’s a sexy new word for a sexy new future: whatever you want to eat will be made out of the same stuff, but it will be made especially for you.
In the parlance of corporate reformers and their Silicon Valley billionaires bosses, personalization is the less lovely, impersonal ability to educate children online using algorithms that adapt to the child through continuous analysis of their online behavior modifying content, pace, product and reward. Personalization on a narrow band. It’s a marketing term. It promises a return on its investment. As Zuckerberg notes, “We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work.” But, with all of America’s public school children to test it out on, he certainly will find out.
All the small faces will be welded to screens, learning through continuous adaptive assessment that is personalized by what they click on, how their eye moves, what they spend time with, what they avoid. They will be motivated by digital badges, stickers, short games and avatar skins. They can check off their competencies one at a time online. This other kind of personalization is an upmarket spin on a low market policy… part of the new philanthrocapitalism of socially committed faux caring. (Please stay online. Your child is important to us.)
Caveat Emptor, Mom
When Zhao included his preemptive disclaimer to assure readers that he is not for THAT personalization, he acknowledges that personalization means too many different things to too many different people and, for that reason, that you have to clarify what you mean. He does not address how a parent or educator is supposed to know what kind of personalization is being offered. In the brave new world of education reform, it is up to the parent as consumer of a profitable public good to read the fine print, to know what they are getting and to determine whether it’s what they want to have.
Parents and educators need to deep dive to find out which kinds of personalization are being rolled out in their district. It will be on them to find out if their child is getting a rich education or a low value, boiled down, online package of content, mass produced for you, at your own speed (privacy not included) Is their child being continuous assessed by an algorithm that gathers private information and rewards them with extrinkets that build no capacity and kindle no passions? Or are they getting real world engagement and work that enables them to be motivated by the thing itself? What percentage of their learning is online? How much of what they will be doing is hands on? How is this work impacting class size? What products will they create? Parents and educators are going to have to insist that their children’s education include rich, relational, high agency projects that produce useful skills and capacities, that broaden horizons and engage highest potential interests for both on and off line life, and they need to insist on a language that is clear. The first thing they need to know is that it is not their job to figure out whether their school’s personalization is depersonalized. Nonetheless… caveat emptor, dad.
Best practice: A word should do a job. Unless you are being intentionally ironic, that job is not to imply one thing while delivering another. Best practice is the use of specific language to describe different strategies and lenses on learning. In the meantime, make sure educators, parents and community members know that personalization has several meanings and that for the next little while they will need to interrogate those meanings and the people throwing them around.