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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Personalized Learning, Big Data and Schools

The Best Buy back to school commercial, "Lidia Marin," highlights personalization and customization. The viewer finds out that Lidia Marin, a marine biology major, loves marine biology and has a dream to be a marine biologist. Lidia and a Best Buy salesperson enter the dreamlike world of Best Buy, which promises to find "what's perfect" for Lidia. The message: Best Buy is committed to doing everything it takes to meet the needs of the consumer, and the store is built for personalization and customization.

Google just announced that it is introducing "new voice searches that let you ask questions about . . . you" to aggregate your wants and needs from travel and shopping to photos and calendars. How does Google do it? They use detailed algorithms to tap into everything they know about you from your use of their search engine.

The Age of Personalization

Simply put, we live in an age of personalization and customization -- and companies know it and are gearing their efforts to serve our needs in the way they think we want to be served.

Other fields like digital TV are driven by algorithms to determine what the viewer wants in the moment. Wired Magazine reports that Netflix has over 800 engineers at work in its Silicon Valley offices. They also utilize 40 freelancers "hand tagging TV shows and movies," as reported in Wired Magazine. For Netflix, every waking moment is devoted to giving the viewer what he or she wants and expects. This sets a high bar for other content delivery services as well.

The field of medicine is making use of data sharing to meet the needs of patients. I had a conversation with a doctor recently who shared that he uses an iPad during his office visits, inputting symptoms into a program that spits back treatment options, from preventative care to pharmaceuticals. He describes what he sees in the patient and then receives instant feedback on what to do in the moment. And these recommendations pull in the latest research, so he is getting up-to-the-minute options for patient treatment based on best practices. Data is transforming his work as a doctor.

However, this doctor is ahead of the curve. In Forbes Magazine, Robert Pearl writes about the slow pace of adoption for electronic medical records (EMR). He explains: "Health information technologies like [EMR] could enable doctors to make faster, more informed clinical decisions and improve the overall quality of patient care. But adoption and use of health IT is still not standard practice. And even among physicians with EMR systems, data sharing is limited."

Pearl foresees that pressure will instigate a change in the system. "What will force American health care into the 21st century? In a word: pressure. Pressure from businesses that purchase health care. Pressure from consumers who use health care. Pressure from the government that funds more than half of the cost of U.S. health care."

Big Data Schooling

Similarly, the field of education is facing enormous pressure to adapt to technology as educators figure out how to meet the needs of students in a personalized, meaningful and timely manner based on best practices. Pressure is coming from students, parents and policy makers, especially as there is a rush to make meaning and use of data from testing.

In U.S. News and World Report, Doug Guthrie writes: "Big data in the online learning space will give institutions the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students. By designing a curriculum that collects data at every step of the student learning process, universities can address student needs with customized modules, assignments, feedback and learning trees in the curriculum that will promote better and richer learning."

Guthrie is writing about universities, but the push for the use of "big data" in K-12 learning spaces is not too far in the distance. Samel Arbesman, writing in The Washington Post, notes: "It [big data] can lead us to smaller pieces of knowledge: how to tailor a product or how to treat a disease a little bit better. If those bits can help lots of people, the effect may be large."

The question for schools: how large will the effect of big data be?

Personalization: Peril and Possibility

MIT professor Mitch Resnick outlines the key elements needed when thinking about implementing personalized learning in schools. In a Q and A with The Hechinger Report, he explains: "Clearly there are some advantages at having certain things personalized for you. As long as it's some options, choices and suggestions, then it's okay. But I wouldn't want to be limited only to what a machine suggests for me. If it's central to my experience, if I'm categorized in a certain way and pushed down a certain path, it could make a much worse experience for me. The machine could have students avoid things they might have been interested in."

For teachers, being able to compile action plans for students based on best practices would be a boon to the profession, especially for young teachers. Imagine if a teacher could input "symptoms" about students to then receive immediate feedback on the best approach to take for a particular student, drawing on all of the data available about that student, from learning inventories and standardized test scores to the community in which he or she resides.

One of the challenges for schools in working with students is that schools only get part of the picture, as students live a large after-school life in a variety of settings including team sports, music and jobs.

The Tools are Available

For students and teachers, it would be a powerful resource to have fingertip access to content that meets individual needs and also stretches students to explore and discover new topics and content. Fortunately, that technology is already here. The ability to create personalized "digital playlists" for students and teachers, along the lines of Pandora, Netflix and Spotify, is possible with three web platforms -- OpenCurriculum, Activate Instruction and Gooru.

Anya Kamenetz reports in Fast Company that "OpenCurriculum is a place where teachers can upload their stuff from anywhere and create, edit and share open material in the browser."

Activate Instruction makes use of data to maximize the benefits of its platform. In the same article, Kamenetz explains: "The free resources on their platform are all designed to meet the needs of new state standardized tests, and on the back end they feed into student data systems so that when a student completes a quiz using the platform, it can be tracked for the student's final grade and matched with other information."

In Forbes, Jordan Shapiro explains how Gooru, a web platform founded by former Google research scientist Prasad Ram, works: "At every interaction, Gooru captures usage data, social signals and learning outcomes, which are used to develop user profiles, inform recommendation algorithms, and provide teachers with tools to deliver personalized learning to their students." Gooru taps into the power of analytics to drive learning. As Shapiro writes: "Gooru puts the power of big analytics in the hands of small classrooms."

The days of "playlist" learning are here, and with widespread adoption of mobile technologies, the ability to implement personalized learning through data sharing on a broad scale is now possible.

What are ways that you have already begun to implement a personalized learning model in your classrooms?

Comments (2)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Zak Ringelstein's picture

Have you seen UClass, which lets teachers create playlists of lessons from an assortment of Common Core lessons created by teachers? It is awesome.

Queenie's picture

This article is very useful. Thanks for sharing those resource link. I will surely enjoy reading them.

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