Teach You, Algorithms Do?

Last month, Vicki Phillips published We Should Be Teaching Our Students Like Yoda Taught Luke in Wired Magazine.  The title passed across my Twitter timeline several times over the weeks, and every time it gnawed at the media critic inside:  Yoda as a teacher is a caricature of a Westerner’s view of a Maharishi, right down to the riddle cadence.  EdTech is full of such bombast designed to provide a shallow read for a slightly engaged audience, and having reached veteran status in the field I do a pretty good job of brushing aside hyperbole and sticking to substance.  I assumed it was a poorly devised metaphor to fit the EdTech boilerplate, no more.

Last week, the article was emailed to me on good authority as something I needed to read.  And I did.  And an article that at first was considered for Worst EdTech Title of 2015 quickly became a nominee for Worst EdTech Article of 2015.

IN GEORGE LUCAS’ classic  The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda patiently tutors, challenges and imparts his wisdom to Luke Skywalker deep in the Dagobah swamps, sometimes while perched on the shoulder of his young Jedi-in-training. That scene depicts the Platonic ideal of personalized learning.

Right off the bat there are red flags, most notably the claims in the article versus ample evidence that Yoda was, in fact, a horrible teacher.  And while the linked article is from GeekWire, it at least links its desire to several articles on educational theory and methodology, something Phillips assumes in her article but fails to deliver.  What Phillips does deliver is the importance of the one-on-one relationship between Yoda and Luke, right down to the physical proximity between Yoda and Luke (as long as we forget that Yoda was berating Luke the whole time he was on his shoulders).

What happens next is a sales pitch for personalized learning, not personal as in a one-to-one relationship between student and expert, but a technology-driven experience where algorithms, not sentient beings such as Yoda, patiently tutor, challenge, and impart their wisdom data bank to the novice.  Phillips goes back to invoking Plato as the catalyst for personalized learning, doing so to say 2500 years later we all can now do what Socrates did as a teacher because we have computers.

What’s different today is the pace at which the momentum for personalized learning is building, thanks to a combination of cutting-edge technology, a growing body of research and a wider appreciation for the power of this approach to teaching and learning. Taken together, these catalysts have helped grow personalized learning from a sporadic practice to an insurgent philosophy.

To synthesize this quotation from the article, in order for personalized learning to be more than a sporadic practice we have to redefine personal away from a human/human relationship to a human/content one.  This is not a new take on the term; there are multiple definitions of personalized learning in the educational lexicon, and my dissertation found a struggle amongst educators to clearly define the term as opposed to entrepreneurs and organizational administrators who more regularly coalesced around more business-driven definitions.  Personalized in some sectors of education is accepted to mean both person to person as well as person to machine.  I think this is a problem.  In the early days of educational computing we used the terms Computer Aided Instruction or Individualized Learning because, well, personal still had that person-to-person meaning.  This is what marketing does:  it blurs the lines and renders terms meaningless, simulacrum to promote commerce.

I want to also mention that, as set forth in the Dialogues, the relationship between Socrates and Plato was not a tutor/tutee focus on content (the gist of a machine-based personalized learning approach) but rather a rich and dynamic exploration of topics between both parties, the result of which was the transformation of both men.  Socrates grew in his thought and wisdom because of the dialogue with Plato, and that growth was not limited in the way a personalized learning apparatus would be to only gain data points designed to better shoehorn the content for the next software user.  The experience changed both men, enabling their work and ideas to grow and expand.

By the middle of the article, Phillips drops both the Star Wars/Epic Narrative metaphor as well as the Platonic allusions to sell the Gates Foundation’s view of personalized learning.

…the classroom walls at Nolan Middle School in Michigan have been removed and the desks replaced with modular furniture. Students choose which subjects to work on during schedules divided into large blocks of work time. Two teachers monitor groups of up to 50 students; two others use real-time data to identify and work with students who need extra help.

Phillips uses Nolan Middle School as an example of the success of personalized learning as an algorithm. A paragraph later, Phillips notes that the research cannot isolate personalized learning as the catalyst for the uptick in test scores for these students, but she is resolute that it is happening because of personalized learning.  What I see in the above quotation is a classroom where up to 50 students have the support of four teachers, a 12.5 to 1 ratio that gets a lot closer to a more personal understanding of personal learning, considering that, according to the latest round of survey results from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average secondary classroom in the United States has almost double the number of students in classroom per teacher (23.4).  Quick aside – I wonder what would happen if the two teachers assigned to monitoring the students at this school were instead free to engage beyond management and surveillance.

When I see articles purporting personalized learning as exceeding the capabilities of a human teacher, I think about the history of computer-aided instruction in education, and I think back to the University of Illinois’ Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) system of the 1960s and 1970s. The intent was to serve content across terminals so people could learn at their own individual pace.  The research and development around PLATO is responsible for some of the most common features in web-based telecommunications today:  instant messaging, emoticons, discussion boards, multiplayer gaming, and synchronous conferencing.  To me, what is interesting about the effect of PLATO is not that over 50 years later we are dusting off CAI and saying it is now better tailored for student adaptation, but that the long-term effect of the project was based on the social artifacts its developers and adherents realized.

As [PLATO] grew and evolved, it became, pretty much by accident, the first major online community, in the current sense of the term. In the early 1970s, people lucky enough to be exposed to the system discovered it offered a radically new way of understanding what computers could be used for: computers weren’t just about number-crunching (and delivering individualized instruction), they were about people connecting with people.

– Brian Dear, The Friendly Orange Glow

The technology we roll out for student use in the classroom does a number of things quite well as a standalone product.  It has the potential to do a number of transformative things we too rarely realize in a formal learning space.  History has a way of showing the importance of an innovation or a disruption well after its supernova status, and when it comes to classroom technology what lasts are the social and communal elements of hardware and software.  Personalized learning is a new coat of paint on individualized instruction or computer-aided instruction, not the realization of 2500 years of progress.  The differences between what PLATO accomplished in the 1960s, what CAI accomplished in the 1980s, and what we call personalized learning today are not monumental; the content at the heart of such a learning experience is not, in the end, the vital deliverable in an educational setting.  We can have the Socrates/Plato relationship every day of the year in every classroom if we invest in such a relationship.  Let’s hope our investments do not forget the personal in personalized, and that our teachers are better at their jobs than Yoda.

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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