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Can Personalized Learning Software Help Bridge Gaps in Educational Inquality?

Published on 13 January 16
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In December of last year, Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan celebrated the birth of their newborn by announcing the formation of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Over the course of several decades, the initiative will invest 99 percent of the couple’s Facebook shares--roughly $45 billion--in organizations that seek to make the world a better place for the next generation.


Their announcement was made public in the form of a Facebook note titled, A letter to our daughter which touched on the many areas the couple wished to cover. Among the first was the expansion of personalized learning software, where the couple assert that with the expansion of technology, access to quality education will become easier. The pair note,


" ... students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don't live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity."


Personalized learning allows individual students to learn at their own pace, as the technology structures courses and learning materials based on students’ abilities and interests. The technology is also adaptive, responding to a student’s progress throughout the course, changing reading materials and assignments accordingly.


Some studies have shown that personalized learning software can produce improvements in learning. According to NPR, some students are able to progress half a grade level depending on the subject material. Personalized learning software has made its way to higher education too, with many schools seeing positive results after integrating personalized learning software in their classrooms.


Details about the initiative, including the scope at which the pair is investing in personalized learning software remains unclear, though the couple has promised their goals will take decades to unveil. For now, Chan and Zuckerberg have a vision, billions of dollars to back it up, and an end goal.


But is personalized learning technology the future of education? Some educators remain skeptical.


Over the last few decades, educational technologies, including personalized learning, have closed few divides, even when the software is free. Justin Reich, who researches online education at MIT, tells NPR that out of the many claims made about ed-tech in the Chan-Zuckerberg letter, he is most skeptical about the claims of increasing equity.


As an example, Reich cites free online college courses, which over the past five years have been praised as a means of democratizing higher education. In a paper in Science, his research shows that teens and young adults who enroll in these courses are more affluent than the norm. Affluent students tend to be more successful in these courses than their more disadvantaged peers, and finish twice as often as students whose parents did not complete college.


Others argue that successfully pulling off personalized learning in schools requires major changes, such as grouping students by ability and allowing more flexibility in class schedules. Moving forward with personalized learning technology will likely involve redesigning classrooms, and retraining educators to teach more effectively under these new circumstances.


Technology is rapidly becoming a fixture in academe. But the extent to which it is implemented to scale isn’t without it’s controversies. As Boston University professor Jay Halfond notes, ...We are currently in the midst of something between an evolution and a revolution--a modification of business-as-usual and a major transformation.


Though complete plans for the Chan-Zuckerberg haven’t yet been released beyond this initial announcement, Zuckerberg seems to have plans for a radically reformed school model. Facebook has contributed engineers to Summit Schools, a chain of technology-centered charter schools, to build a pilot for other schools to implement. Previously the pair invested in AltSchool, a for-profit private school chain aiming to build its own operating system, which will be made available to other schools across the country. The couple also announced that they plan to fund private schools for low income students.


But Michael Feldstein, a digital education consultant, notes, the technology is important, but it’s not really the hard or expensive part. The challenges are particularly hard for poorer schools, where there is less money and less support for teachers. Scaling the technological benefits of personalized learning technology will require more than just software, it might also require huge policy changes in education as a whole.


Still, onlookers remain positive that the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative will allow further research and much needed funding to educational technology and how it will impact classrooms of the future. With any luck, the pair’s philanthropic efforts will bring us a step closer to eliminating educational inequality, and benefit all students--not just those who already have access to it.
















In December of last year, Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan celebrated the birth of their newborn by announcing the formation of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Over the course of several decades, the initiative will invest 99 percent of the couple’s Facebook shares--roughly $45 billion--in organizations that seek to make the world a better place for the next generation.

Their announcement was made public in the form of a Facebook note titled, A letter to our daughter which touched on the many areas the couple wished to cover. Among the first was the expansion of personalized learning software, where the couple assert that with the expansion of technology, access to quality education will become easier. The pair note,

" ... students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don't live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity."

Personalized learning allows individual students to learn at their own pace, as the technology structures courses and learning materials based on students’ abilities and interests. The technology is also adaptive, responding to a student’s progress throughout the course, changing reading materials and assignments accordingly.

Some studies have shown that personalized learning software can produce improvements in learning. According to NPR, some students are able to progress half a grade level depending on the subject material. Personalized learning software has made its way to higher education too, with many schools seeing positive results after integrating personalized learning software in their classrooms.

Details about the initiative, including the scope at which the pair is investing in personalized learning software remains unclear, though the couple has promised their goals will take decades to unveil. For now, Chan and Zuckerberg have a vision, billions of dollars to back it up, and an end goal.

But is personalized learning technology the future of education? Some educators remain skeptical.

Over the last few decades, educational technologies, including personalized learning, have closed few divides, even when the software is free. Justin Reich, who researches online education at MIT, tells NPR that out of the many claims made about ed-tech in the Chan-Zuckerberg letter, he is most skeptical about the claims of increasing equity.

As an example, Reich cites free online college courses, which over the past five years have been praised as a means of democratizing higher education. In a paper in Science, his research shows that teens and young adults who enroll in these courses are more affluent than the norm. Affluent students tend to be more successful in these courses than their more disadvantaged peers, and finish twice as often as students whose parents did not complete college.

Others argue that successfully pulling off personalized learning in schools requires major changes, such as grouping students by ability and allowing more flexibility in class schedules. Moving forward with personalized learning technology will likely involve redesigning classrooms, and retraining educators to teach more effectively under these new circumstances.

Technology is rapidly becoming a fixture in academe. But the extent to which it is implemented to scale isn’t without it’s controversies. As Boston University professor Jay Halfond notes, ...We are currently in the midst of something between an evolution and a revolution--a modification of business-as-usual and a major transformation.

Though complete plans for the Chan-Zuckerberg haven’t yet been released beyond this initial announcement, Zuckerberg seems to have plans for a radically reformed school model. Facebook has contributed engineers to Summit Schools, a chain of technology-centered charter schools, to build a pilot for other schools to implement. Previously the pair invested in AltSchool, a for-profit private school chain aiming to build its own operating system, which will be made available to other schools across the country. The couple also announced that they plan to fund private schools for low income students.

But Michael Feldstein, a digital education consultant, notes, the technology is important, but it’s not really the hard or expensive part. The challenges are particularly hard for poorer schools, where there is less money and less support for teachers. Scaling the technological benefits of personalized learning technology will require more than just software, it might also require huge policy changes in education as a whole.

Still, onlookers remain positive that the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative will allow further research and much needed funding to educational technology and how it will impact classrooms of the future. With any luck, the pair’s philanthropic efforts will bring us a step closer to eliminating educational inequality, and benefit all students--not just those who already have access to it.

This blog is listed under Development & Implementations , Digital Media & Games and E-Commerce Community

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