News of redoubled efforts from billionaire investors, pushback from the rank and file in teachers’ unions, and major studies from top education research firms, have each animated the discourse around the next big thing in education technology: personalized learning. While experts haven’t yet reached an air-tight consensus around a definition for personalized learning, most generally agree that the term refers to efforts on the part of instructors to tailor lesson plans or the pace of content delivery to the particular strengths, weaknesses, and needs of each or their students. In recent years, the term has been closely linked to education technology, in part because experts anticipate the growth of customizable assessments and sophisticated online course delivery will help educators better tailor academic material to individual learners. For now, however, the research has shown mixed results, and some worry that the push towards personalized learning may be premature.
Those concerns have not stopped two high-profile billionaire technology entrepreneurs, however. Both Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and more recently, Mark Zuckerberg, through the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, have committed huge sums of money to personalized learning initiatives. Zuckerberg and his wife, a pediatrician and former schoolteacher, Priscilla Chan, have long expressed an interest in educational philanthropy and personalized learning in particular. After a high-profile $100 million failure to reform Newark, New Jersey’s school system, however, the details surrounding their second push into education philanthropy have been held mostly under wraps.
Recently, James Shelton, the director of the educational work being done at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, spoke with Education Week about the big-picture strategy his team is pursuing. According to Shelton, a former top official in the Obama administration’s Education Department, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is eyeing a “whole child” approach to personalized learning. In other words, Zuckerberg is pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in outlays to education nonprofits and for-profits that are focusing on customizable student experiences inside and out of the classroom.
Notably, Zuckerberg’s latest foray into personalized learning is being organized under the umbrella of a limited liability corporation, rather than a charitable non-profit. This form of “philanthrocapitalism” has the advantage of giving the tech entrepreneur more flexibility in where he chooses to direct his support—including investments in for-profit companies and political advocacy work. On the other hand, some have questioned whether the Initiative’s investments will be transparent, whether conflicts of interest may arise, and why the group hasn’t committed to making the source code to any new software it develops open and freely accessible to the public.
Proponents of personalized learning are also pointing to a new study issued by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization, that suggests that strategic philanthropic investment in the area can have a positive impact on academic outcomes for students. The study, supported financially by the Gates Foundation, claims “there is suggestive evidence that greater implementation of [personalized learning] practices may be related to more-positive effects on achievement; however, this finding requires confirmation through further research.”
The high poverty, high minority, mostly charter schools that the RAND study examined are the same schools that the Gates Foundation has supported through grants in recent years. Furthermore, the study also calls for state policymakers to give school districts more flexibility to install personalized learning systems, and for philanthropists and investors to continue to give money to organizations dedicated to personalized learning research and software development.
If the Gates-backed study’s recommendations and the objectives of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative sound similar, it could be by design. The two initiatives have already collaborated on some investments, and Shelton previously worked at the Gates Foundation prior to leaving for public service and then joining Zuckerberg’s team.
Not everyone in the education community is happy about the work being pioneered by Zuckerberg and Gates. Last month, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, published a favorable article about personalized learning in an online post. Some elements of the teachers’ unions, many of whom are still bitter over the Gates Foundation’s support for the Common Core State Standards, criticized the article for endorsing the replacement of teachers by computers.
While Shelton and other backers of personalized learning say that their work is about empowering teachers, rather than ousting them, there is a clear lack of trust between the educational philanthropic community and some grassroots education advocates. Before personalized learning truly takes hold at scale, its backers will have to prove that their efforts are cost-effective, lead to better outcomes for students, and will have to win over skeptical educators who question whether a high-tech approach to customized learning is realistic or desirable.