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Class Sizes, Automation, and the Definition of Personalized Learning

Class Sizes, Automation, and the Definition of Personalized Learning

I saw an article over the weekend about a school district that was placing 50+ students into every distance learning classroom.  Of course this is a temptation that is to be largely expected.  At a time when budgets are stretched thin and schools are scrambling to find ways to save money, it is hardly surprising to find schools that are stuffing digital classrooms with more students.

In my opinion, the logic behind increased student to teacher ratios in digital learning spaces can  be connected to the broader effort on the part of edtech companies to create student adaptive technologies that can function without the need for teacher involvement or intervention.  In this perspective, personalization is not about a teacher to student relationship, but is about tailoring work to the individual learning needs of the student.  In essence, it is the automation of the learning process.  When the classroom is automated, a bot or algorithm is all you need to personalize learning for each student.  Class sizes become somewhat irrelevant when learning is automated, and the economic benefits and profits of going quickly to scale become achievable.  Perhaps the underlying belief is that such a learning experience is superior as it cuts out the need for teachers, who are not only expensive but produce widely different outputs.  So goes the thinking.

I am certainly not antagonistic to high quality, student-adaptive learning technologies.  In fact,  I think they represent one of the most exciting frontiers in school reform happening right now.  Used in moderation and strategically, such technologies can certainly help develop and strengthen targeted academic skills.  What I take issue with is the notion that such automated learning experiences and technologies can or should take the place of the teacher/student relationship.  In other words, I strongly believe that student-adaptive technology does not rise to the level of personalized learning.  I have written previously about how the heart of personalization are the relationships between learners and teachers.  Personalization is not just academic tasks tailored to individual students, but encompasses the emotions of inclusion, the excitement of authentic social interaction and engagement, and attention to the developmental needs of each and every child.  Personalization is about a learning environment where a student knows that they are both known and loved on a personal level.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is parenting.  Parents can certainly benefit from utilizing technology that makes them more effective in their parenting.  But parenting itself – instilling values, supporting pro-social development, building attachments and healthy relationships – these are functions that cannot be outsourced or automated.  In fact, our entire society is wrestling with the impact that modern technologies are having on the mental health and development of our children.  The data that drive individually adaptive technologies are also increasingly viewed with suspicion and concern.  When I hear someone advocating for the de-emphasis on access to caring adults in the classroom, I grow wary.

Which brings us back to the topic of class sizes.  I have been an education administrator for over a decade, and there is hardly a year or a negotiation cycle where the conversation doesn’t turn at some point to topic of class size.  Often, the defense for heightened class sizes is that the academic research is clear that larger class sizes do not have a negative impact on student learning.  My purpose here is not to hash out the academic literature on class size (which I should add, is mixed and mostly emphasizes the positive benefit of highly skilled teachers regardless of class size).  Typically, the dependent variable being tested with variations in class size are academic outcomes and not other desirable outcomes such as student social-emotional development or teacher morale and well-being.  In any case, I certainly understand that increased class sizes sometimes are necessary.  Resources are not infinite, and we are constrained by funding models in both public and private settings that have implications for what is possible in the design and delivery of instruction.  I’ve personally had to make the decision to increase class size in the schools and systems I have led.  But let’s call it what it is – an economically driven decision.  My favorite litmus test for this type of decision is one suggested by Geoffrey Canada, who applies the simple test of asking what do students from wealthy families get.  They get lower class sizes.

So, let’s not be too eager to find efficiencies in schools that negatively impact students’ access to caring, meaningful relationships with adults.

This article originally appeared on #schoolmadefresh.