The Playlist’s (Not) The Thing

Yesterday in my Twitter-browsing, I came across an article in New York Magazine by Nick Tabor (h/t Emily Hanford @ehanford) – Mark Zuckerberg is Trying to Transform Education.  This Town Fought Back

Look, I think it would be a mistake to assume that all of the 380 public and charter schools that have adopted the Facebook-funded Summit personalized-learning platform have had an experience as bad as the Cheshire, CT elementary and middle schools did.  It’s clear from the article that this town’s experience seems to be an outlier (at least for now).

Furthermore, I’m not on the bandwagon with the idea that it is a malum in se for corporations to make investments in U.S. education.  In fact, I think this would be good if more private companies supported education for students in need — something that tax-credit scholarships programs make very attractive, BTW.

With those caveats out of the way, let me just say this — beware tech moguls bearing gifts.  The reason has nothing to do with “greed” as conventionally understood.  It has everything to do with the paradox of massive tech companies:

  • they are by nature disruptive
  • they are by nature homogenizing.

The NY Magazine story highlights the first problem — the townspeople were not consulted about this massive change that adopting the Summit personalized-learning platform would bring to both curriculum and pedagogy.  There was, as the story points out, not a chance to opt-in or opt-out.  So, that’s mistake #1.

The second problem is apparent on a few levels.  The core idea of this platform is a very old notion about the role of education.  The author notes:

The modern notion of personalized learning, in which lesson plans are adapted for each individual student, dates back to the Progressive era, and is the general basis for Montessori- and Waldorf-style education, but has never taken hold broadly in the U.S.

I think Mr Tabor is right that the idea of personalized learning is old, but I think it’s a mistake to trace its ultimate origin back to the Progressive era.  The core idea goes back to our friend Rousseau and his Romantic idea that civilization corrupts the child.

Furthermore, while Montessori-style education is not generally practiced in public schools, the philosophy of the role of the teacher as a “guide on the side not sage on the stage” is 100% the conventional view in schools of education and in most school districts.  Again, theory and practice are different things, but Zuck’s ideological commitment is indistinguishable from what most professors of education espouse.

On the surface, it would appear that a philosophy or platform that adapts to the individual student would enhance diversity, not homogeneity.  I think this is one reason that some well-meaning libertarian education reformers are attracted to tech-enabled personalized learning.

But pay close attention to the way that these programs are actually implemented.  Here,  Mr Tabor gives the students’ perspective on what it was actually like to have the “playlist” be your teacher (emphasis mine):

They also noticed the computer was easier to trick than a teacher. They could skip the lessons and pass the multiple-choice tests, if they were so inclined, either by making educated guesses, or by working the odds, retaking them until they answered eight out of ten questions correctly (even though the teacher would get pinged after a few consecutive failures). Other students realized they could open two separate browser tabs, one with the questions and another with the answers, and cheat their way through.

That’s right.  As you’re likely aware, computers as we know them run on zeros and ones, yeses and noes, on and off.  Binary choices.  In the core educational context, relying on “playlists” that students can game to determine mastery (based on multiple choice quizzes) seems to be pretty much the opposite of enhancing student individuality, creativity, and problem-solving.

BTW, as an official TED-Talk-Speaker-Approved™ metaphor for a framework of learning, “playlist” might be one of the dumbest ones yet.  I mean, it’s already outdated – content is streaming and/or algorithm-optimized now.

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I don’t want to be unfair to Montessori fans.  The approach has much to recommend itself when done well.  But it might not be scalable, at least in conventional school settings.  In fact, it might cause a good deal of harm if it is imposed in inappropriate contexts, and it might be particularly bad when it’s computerized.

This is where the tech moguls and sometimes other philanthropists really screw things up — they take an idea that might work in a smaller setting, with well-trained teachers and lots of community buy-in (hello school choice) and then say, well, technology brings down the price of everything else it touches (disruption) so if we (badly) map this idea onto some code and bring our (homogenous) platform to any particular community, it must bring about the desired results.

When the power of education is concentrated in just a few institutions, it makes it a lot easier for bad ideas to be imposed from the top down and do lots of damage.  One of the most compelling arguments for educational freedom is that it will bring about more pluralism in education — more groups, organizations, and more families will become gatekeepers.

And I think that brings me to the thing that really nagged me about this story.  It’s clear that the community that fought Zuck and won is a rather affluent one.  It’s clear that parents had the power of both voice and exit (emphasis mine):

As the school year in Connecticut went on, some parents tried to move their kids into classes that weren’t using the platform — but administrators said they couldn’t, because it would disrupt the distribution of students to teachers. A few reportedly pulled their kids from the district. And a cadre of others committed to getting the program suspended.

They created a group on Slack, the workplace messaging system, and a private forum on Facebook, where they could share links to relevant news articles and social-science research.

I’m very interested in the demographics of the 380 other schools that have adopted the Summit platform.  I’m interested to learn whether the ones that have had a problem with it tend to be in more affluent areas than the ones that have not raised the same kind of ruckus.  If you are a parent with limited choices for your child’s education, you may not be as effective in advocating against changes that are having a negative effect on your child.

As I’ve discussed here before, I’m actually a fan of online education.  What I’m deeply skeptical of is whether conventional school settings are the place where the power of online learning can truly and meaningfully be unleashed.  It may be that in conventional school settings, a combination of lecture and Socratic methodologies works best.

If that’s not palatable to you, then we need to figure out a way to make it possible for more families to afford schools that are narrowly tailored to meet their needs.  These schools will adopt a variety of approaches to learning.  And if they are accountable to families, they are far more likely to produce better outcomes — no matter their approach.



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