The Limitations of Digital Personalised Learning

By David Starshaw – Mathematics Teacher – High School

In another life I could’ve easily been the poster boy for digital, personalised learning.

– I am one of those “paperless” types.

– I can code (for a very generous definition of coding).

– I have made my own website for my students to use and I have used sites like Khan Academy, both as a teacher and personally.

In other words, I should be all for digital, personalised learning. Digital, personalised learning is characterised by the student no longer being dependent on the teacher, but being free to work at his or her level regardless of the stage at which other students are working. Digital technologies help facilitate this as computers and servers do a lot of the differentiation ‘grunt work’ and they can lead students through pre-prepared lessons at a pace that suits them. And yet…

What’s the problem? One of the most commonly stated advantages of digital, personalised learning is that the student can fast-forward, pause, and rewind videos as they’re watching them. As Dan Meyer, US math educator/blogger and international advocate for better math instruction for students, puts it, “This isn’t good instruction, this is what the technology permits.”

So why isn’t it good instruction?

When someone says something you don’t understand, how often do you ask them to “repeat exactly what you just said, only slower”? Ironically, personalised learning is unable to tailor its lessons and explanations for individual students.

This should not be a difficult expectation. In fact teachers do this all the time and yet, in 2017, digital personalised learning cannot.

Teachers also take into account the prior knowledge of their students before choosing the level at which to pitch their lesson. But if you search for an online video explaining, say, quadratic expansion, it will begin at exactly the same place for each viewer. Because it must. Because it can’t personalise itself to you.

In our Montessori high school, a significant part of the adolescents’ learning relates to their place in the world and the relationships they have with those around them. In our preschool at Wā Ora, there is no place for devices and digital technology and our primary classes can only access computers in a very limited capacity.

So while digital personalised learning can have advantages because of the technology it uses, it is not a panacea and it certainly can’t replace a teacher and hands-on learning, rather it needs to be utilised in conjunction with face-to-face learning where it is the teacher, who is ultimately guiding the student.