What do the founders of Microsoft, Facebook and Netflix have in common?
Apart from being responsible for some of the biggest tech brands on the planet, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Reed Hastings all believe in a personalised approach to education.
Just as Netflix personalises movie recommendations based on your viewing habits and Facebook personalises your news feed, so education should more closely reflect an individual’s tastes.
The idea of personalised education is not new. In the early 20th century Italian educationalist Maria Montessori championed self-directed learning; and educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 study (PDF document) showed that students tutored on a one-to-one basis performed better than 98% of their classmates.
Bloom’s study was concerned with the question of how large classes could be taught in a way that would be as effective as one-to-one tutoring.
Silicon Valley’s finest believe technology may finally provide the answer.
Zuckerberg has made education a key pillar of the philanthropic foundation he launched with his wife, Priscilla Chan, in 2015.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – to which the Facebook founder has pledged 99% of his company shares – states on its website that it “aims to help every child access personalized educational experiences that can change the trajectory of their life”.
The initiative has invested in and is helping to develop the Summit Learning Platform. Teachers using the platform become coaches and help each student to work through lessons at their own pace and to take tests when they are ready.
Analysis of real-time data from tests and lessons means teachers can tailor the help they provide to meet each student’s particular needs.
A key part of educational technology’s success rests on how well it can be adapted to the needs of the learner.
While a 2015 OECD report found little connection between how much a country invests in IT in schools and how well its children perform in educational tests, subsequent research is beginning to show more positive results when the scope of educational technology is narrowed to adaptive learning programmes.
A study of 62 US schools commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found children using adaptive learning scored higher marks in reading and maths tests than those who had not used a personalised approach. Many who were previously below-average scorers ended up with above-average marks.
A review of more than 100 educational technology initiatives around the world, published in September, found that computer-assisted learning improved pupil performance, particularly in maths.
However, in keeping with the OECD findings, the review by the Harvard-based Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab also notes that “simply providing students with access to technology yields largely mixed results”.
But equally students whose learning took place completely online were outperformed by those who had some form of personal engagement, suggesting that a “blended” approach of classroom teaching and online learning may work best.
It is an approach championed by the Summit Learning Platform and Dreambox, an artificial intelligence-driven adaptive learning platform backed by Netflix co-founder Hastings.
Access for all
Despite a small but growing body of evidence about the benefits of education technology, the biggest challenge to its more widespread use continues to be the lack of access.
If technology is truly going to provide personalised education for all then something needs to be done to bridge the lack of internet infrastructure in many developing nations.
University of Southern California professor Andrea Armani has suggested making adaptive learning programmes available via offline formats such as CDs and USB memory sticks.
But this would mean the loss of some of adaptive learning’s key advantages: there would be no real-time data to analyse and a limit to just how “personalised” the learning would be.
As almost half of the world’s population still cannot access the internet, personalised education risks remaining what it has always been: the privilege of the wealthy.
The Global Education and Skills Forum is taking place on 17th and 18th March 2018 in Dubai, UAE, with the theme of “How do we prepare young people for the world of 2030 and beyond?” Register your interest here.