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A version of this article is cross-posted to Hack Education

In early June, I gave a keynote at the OEB MidSummit on the history of "personalization.“ I only had 20 minutes, so it’s a partial history at best. But as ”personalized learning" has become one of the most prominent buzzwords in education technology, I think it’s worth investigating its origins and its trajectory at length.

Personalized learning is often tied to the progressive educators of the early twentieth century – to John Dewey and Maria Montessori, for example – even though much of the educational software that’s marketed by Silicon Valley and education reformers as “personalized learning” has very little to do with progressive educational theory, except perhaps at the most superficial level. Sure, there’s an invocation of “choice” and “moving-at-your-own-pace,” but the progenitor for much of today’s “personalized learning” seems to be ad-tech rather than ed-tech.

As part of my Spencer Fellowship, I’m investigating the networks of investors and entrepreneurs who are shaping education technology policies and products, and I’ve decided to focus on how “personalized learning” has come to dominate the narratives surrounding technology-based education reform.

There are two obvious sources of funding and PR for “personalized learning” – the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The former has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on “personalized learning” products and projects; the latter promises it will spend billions.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative does not list on its website where its money goes. (It’s a for-profit company, not a charitable foundation so it does not fall under the same reporting requirements as the Gates Foundation does.) As such, it’s going to take me some work to piece together exactly what CZI is funding. (Organizations we know have received CZI money: Chiefs for Change, the College Board, Edsurge (to promote personalized learning projects, and tutoring company BYJU’s, for starters.)

The Gates Foundation’s investments in “personalized learning” are much easier to track. And to that end I have a couple of projects of my own to unveil:

The amount of money that the Gates Foundation has awarded in education grants is simply staggering: some $15 billion across some 3000+ grants since the organization was founded in 1998.

The Gates Foundation first started funding grants “to support personalized learning environments where all students achieve” in 2000, and it has backed the development, adoption, and marketing of “personalized learning” every year since then. (It’s not clear when a school gets a grant for “personalized learning” what software it purchases – is that software also funded by the Gates Foundation? I am assuming here that “personalized learning” necessarily means buying software.)

With billions of dollars spent on shaping policies and narratives, the Gates Foundation remains one of the most influential (and anti-democratic) forces in education. As such, it gets to define what “personalized learning” is – what it looks like.

(Still want to insist that “personalized learning” is progressive? Never forget: Bill Gates once called constructionism, progressive educator Seymour Papert’s theory of learning, “bullshit.” Or at least, I’ll never forget…)

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Audrey Watters


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