By Edgardo J. Angara
In December, 2015, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla announced they would found their own philanthropic project called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), by donating 99 percent of their earnings from Facebook shares (roughly US$45 billion at the time).
The couple outlined in a published letter to their newborn daughter Max that one of CZI’s focus areas would be personalized learning. According to the United States’ 2016 National Education Technology Plan, personalized learning is a new way of teaching where the pace of learning and the instructional approach are “optimized for the needs of each learner.”
The Zuckerbergs wrote in their letter that for better personalized learning, educational technology (edtech) that understands how individual students learn best should be developed and made widely available. Such edtech would allow students to advance quickly in subjects that interest them most and get as much help as they need where they are most challenged. Teachers would also gain better tools and data to help their students achieve personal goals.
These ideas have already earned the backing of groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Omidyar Network of eBay-founder Pierre Omidyar. The Economist recently reported that up to 3,000 school district superintendents in the United States, representing up to a third of public-school children in the United States, signed a pledge to transition to “personalized, digital learning.”
Some are already pilot-testing this new model. In India, tens of thousands of students use the cloud-based application Mindspark to learn math and language. The key difference of Mindspark from other online “test” applications is that it uses big data and machine learning to identify patterns in the way students answer questions. If the software picks up a student’s weaknesses, it recommends remedial exercises.
Another example is Siyavula Practice, which is used in many South African schools for teaching maths and science. Similar to Mindspark, Siyavula Practice uses big data and pattern recognition to help students work on areas where they’re weakest. Recently, the learning platform received a US$1.5-million grant from Google to provide free access to 300,000 low-income students South Africa and Nigeria.
A particular exemplar in edtech-driven personalized learning is the Khan Lab School (KLS) in Mountain View, California, which is the brick-and-mortar experiment of pioneering online education provider Khan Academy.
At KLS, students do not spend their entire day seated in classrooms listening to regimented lectures. Instead, they share common spaces with other students (not necessarily of the same age or academic level), as they pursue what The Economist described as “individual goals and schedules.”
They use so-called “adaptive software” where they can watch video lessons produced by the Khan Academy and answer worksheets or take tests, from which they and their teachers receive immediate feedback. That allows both students and teachers to track progress.
Since the teachers no longer have to spend much time making lesson plans or checking test papers, they devote more effort to tutoring their students individually and developing social skills and character. With the data they receive from the software used, the teachers can also better gauge the strengths and weaknesses of their students, and plan their tuition style accordingly.
Several studies show that such initiatives in edtech and personalized learning are resulting in better test scores and outcomes for students—although it is admittedly still too early to make any definitive conclusions. What is perhaps most exciting — and equally daunting — is the potential for this new approach to evolve what it means to be a good teacher. That should be food for thought for many of us, a few days after World Teachers’ Day.
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