The Danger of Overcustomizing Education for Every Student

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Jan. 16 2013 7:30 AM

The Problem With the School of One

Can technology make education too customized for the student?

Girl using computer.
The same data-gathering revolution that led to Google’s personalization of the news or Amazon’s customized recommendations is leading to a revolution in individually tailored education.

Photo by BananaStock/Thinkstock.

For decades, I resisted the lure of video games. Then I had a son. When Sam was 6, he enjoyed a game called Pajama Sam, which encouraged me to explore the world of video games for adults. At first, I was amazed that people paid good money for this degree of difficulty in the name of entertainment. But after much frustration and persistence, I came to love playing titles like Half-Life, Deus Ex, The Elder Scrolls, Rise of Nations, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Chibi-Robo, and From Dust. Such games are problem-solving spaces, I eventually realized. As such, they must do a good job at teaching the player to master the problem-solving skills necessary to play and win the game. But, more importantly here, such video games are designed to challenge players and make them work hard to succeed. This realization prompted me to begin researching how video games can be used to create good learning.

One problem video game designers have is a tendency seemingly inborn in human beings to optimize their chances of success. Gamers will often seek all possible advantages and use any tactics they can to win. They will, for example, engage in what gamers call “cheats”—pieces of code or hacks that can make the game easier or advantage the player in some way. The problem is this: Gamers will often seek to optimize their chances of success up to the point where they undermine the game’s design and even ruin it by making it too easy.

Good game designers encourage optimization up to a point, as a creative and proactive activity of the gamer. However, they must forestall it from undermining the game and ruining the player’s experience. It is a tricky balance and part of the art of good game design.

This human urge to optimize is, of course, old, and it applies much more widely than just to video games. Faced with significant challenges in the “state of nature,” humans who survived were good optimizers. They did all they could to increase their chances of success (survival) and lower the level of difficulty they faced. Those who did not optimize in this way were selected out of the gene pool for good Darwinian reasons. In the state of nature, one could optimize only so far. The level of difficulty always remained high. One could not cheat death. Ultimately, every human “lost” the game.

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Modern technologies allow the human urge to optimize and lower the level of challenge full rein and near endless application. In modern times, the human urge to optimize takes the form of customization. Modern technologies increasingly allow each of us, if we wish, to customize many things to fit with our skills, styles, desires, and beliefs in such a way as to leave us less challenged and feeling more “successful.” This process goes ever forward with each new technological advance.

For example, today there are adaptive, artificial (computer-based) tutors to teach algebra. Based on how the learner is faring, these tutors (which do quite well) customize presentation, problems, and the order of problems to each individual learner. They can also be equipped with sensors that tell the system when the learner is bored, confused, or frustrated and adapt instruction accordingly. Each learner proceeds based on his or her favored style of learning in a way that lowers the level of frustration as far as possible. Artificial tutors do not care where you start, how long you take to finish, or how smart or stupid your initial answers are. They are far more tolerant than most humans.

There is nothing wrong with, and lots right about, such artificial tutors. They are just one device among many that seek to transform education into “a school of one.” But they represent a perfecting of the human urge to optimize that can go too far and end with bad consequences. People who never confront challenge and frustration, who never acquire new styles of learning, and who never face failure squarely may in the end become impoverished humans. They may become forever stuck with who they are now, never growing and transforming, because they never face new experiences that have not been customized to their current needs and desires.