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Battling over the Meaning of "Personalization"

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"Personalization" is the buzzword of ISTE 2012. In the years ahead, that word will be the frontline of the battleground between educationists with competing visions of the future of learning.

"Personalization" has won the hearts of every camp in education. Whether you are a market-based reformer, an open education advocate, or a 21st century Dewey partisan, everyone agrees that learning should be personalized: learning experiences should be tailored to each individual student. We also agree that personalization is made feasible by new technologies.

Since we agree on these broad principles, we should expect fierce battles over the specifics, over "what we mean by personalization."

For some, personalization means using technology to individually diagnose student competencies on standardized tests and then apply algorithms to adaptively deliver appropriately challenging content to each student to help them perform better on those tests. It means taking the factory model of education and giving every kid an assembly line.

For some, personalization means that technology opens a world of information and expertise to every student, empowers students as explorers and creators, and lets them follow their interests and passions in diverse directions. It means blowing up the factory, and building something else (maybe creative agencies).

Personalization is a new front in a century old war, between Thorndike and Dewey, between instructionism and constructivism. Thorndike was an advocate of an education science driven by objective measurement; Dewey was an advocate of making schools look like life, even if the results were harder to measure.

Those of us who are sympathetic to the Dewey-inspired vision need to think carefully about Ellen Lagemann's admonition that the history of education in the 20th century can be explained as a battle between Thorndike and Dewey, in which Dewey lost.

We have to think carefully about whether a new technology, which creates a new battlefield, actually changes the dynamics that result in the triumph of Thorndike's vision.

To win the battle over personalization, we have to keep asking why we keep losing.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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