The Danger of Overcustomizing Education for Every Student

What's to come?
Jan. 16 2013 7:30 AM

The Problem With the School of One

Can technology make education too customized for the student?

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There is, in fact, an organization called School of One. Here is how the website explains the group’s approach:

School of One learns about the specific academic needs of every student and then accesses a large bank of carefully reviewed educational resources, using sophisticated technology to find the best matches among students, teachers, and resources.

School of One’s learning algorithm helps to ensure each student is learning in his or her educational “sweet spot.” As it collects data, it learns more about the students and becomes more effective at predicting the playlist that will be most effective for each.

The same data-gathering revolution that has led to Google’s personalization of the news or Amazon’s customized book recommendations is leading to a revolution in individually tailored education. Advances in artificial intelligence have helped here, but so has the ability to mine massive data on learners of math, for example, so as to be able to predict which trajectory of learning will work best for different individuals based on what similar learners have done and how they have fared under various conditions. At the same time, a revolution in sensors means that we can know when learners are bored or confused and quickly adapt to the problem. An artificial tutor can gently lead us down out paths of least resistance. All of this can be good, of course, but have you noticed that after you have bought lots of books on Amazon, the titles it recommends all come to sound pretty much alike?

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As a gamer I want a video game to hold my hand when I begin, but I do not want it to customize the boss battle for me. I want the boss battle to test me, and I want to feel a sense of growth and accomplishment when I slay him. In the real world and in our lives, the “bosses” (e.g., global warming, growing inequality, bad jobs, transformative change, and worldwide poverty) are not going to adapt to us. We must enter the fray and let the battle make us better than we were before.

Success in the 21st century at work and in life requires collaboration, collective intelligence, and smart teams using smart tools. In our fast-changing world, a world that faces many serious crises, being able to cope with challenge, to persist past failure, to learn in new ways, and to adapt one’s skills and style to other team members are all 21st-century skills. Yet new technologies and the Internet allow us to enter our own customized echo chambers and identity niches where we can comfort ourselves with what we are and do not have to confront ourselves with what we can be and, indeed, must become as fellow citizens in a diverse and complex global world. This is particularly dangerous for students.

What happens when people with different “sweet spots” have to learn, solve problems, and collaborate with others who have different “sweet spots,” as people so often have to do in modern workplaces? I wonder what would happen should, God forbid, children run into learning situations in the world that cannot be optimized for them individually. What if the world changes and the problems that arise just do not afford solutions that fit their sweet spot? What if their sweet spot is just no good for certain types of learning and problem solving?

Adapted from The Anti-Education Era by James Paul Gee. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and more recently, The Anti-Education Era, both from Palgrave/Macmillan.