2019 Will See Progress on Personalization’s Last Frontier: Education

Opinion

Today, technology and data science have combined to create artificial intelligence—data-driven algorithms that seemingly provide us with options for a fully personalized life.

Gone are the days of Henry Ford’s “You can have any color so long as it’s black.” There are way more than three major network TV channels. We live in an era of practically unlimited personal choice of products, experiences, and beliefs.

On the face of it, we live in the best of times. But could there be a dark side to this? After all, computer algorithms are created by people, and artificial intelligence actually “learns” by analyzing data chosen by people. Do we have the tools to personally decide when we really have free choice? Do we know when our choices, or even beliefs, are being manipulated? As A.I. races forward, have we humans sharpened our skills enough to keep up?

For several decades, leading educators and foresighted business leaders have increasingly called into question whether our assembly line education methods from the time of the black Ford over 100 years ago are up to the challenges of today. Education research clearly demonstrated in the 1980s the tremendous human growth potential of meeting the personalized needs of every student. These leaders called upon our schools to engage our future citizens personally, and help them develop the vital skills of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, initiative, and adaptability to meet today’s career opportunities and societal challenges.

We have known for decades how to sharpen skills, but until very recently, education has remained resistant to innovative change due to a combination of policy, people, and technology.

Most policy makers, educators, and parents have had reactions to personalizing education similar to these:

—We’ve done it this way for over 100 years.
—Our existing methods built the great middle class. Why do we need to change?
—We all went to school and know what school is supposed to be like. Our kids should do what we did.

In fact, in 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act with overwhelming bipartisan support, which effectively doubled down on the existing school methods. NCLB imposed nearly impossible improvement goals as measured by standardized tests, with punitive sanctions for schools if sufficient progress on these tests was not made.

At the same time, companies and organizations in the education technology sector saw the potential of 60 million student and educator customers. Their first application of emerging technologies to education was simply digitizing the existing methods—producing digital books, courses, and test prep. This corresponded to what most school leaders felt they needed for progress on standardized tests.

At the same time, there were innovative educators in schools experimenting with personalized education methods such as project-based and competency-based learning. They demonstrated the power of these kinds of real-world learning experiences for preparing 21st century citizens. My company, Foundry, has been fortunate to work with many of these innovative schools to build edtech tools to manage the complex people and work interactions in personalized education. Other companies and organizations such as AltSchool, New Tech Network, and Summit Learning have joined Foundry in developing the comprehensive technologies that make education personalization really work at scale.

By 2015, it was clear that the NCLB experiment was doing far more harm than good, with many schools spending nearly one-third of their education time on preparing students for standardized tests rather than for the challenges of today. NCLB was replaced at the end of 2015, opening up the possibilities for innovation in many more schools across the nation.

By the beginning of 2019, only halfway through the third school year after No Child Left Behind was left behind, there is reason for great optimism.

Teachers, schools, and districts are exploring ways to truly personalize education to build student agency, a life-long love of learning, and 21st century skills. Collaborative networks of innovative schools are growing. Innovative schools are popping up not only in technology hubs, but also in such diverse places as the upper Midwest, the middle of Kansas, and Cambodia.

These efforts are being strongly supported by organizations such as the Buck Institute for Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and iNACOL.

I believe we will look back at the 2018-2019 school year as the point we began to conquer the last, and the most important frontier of personalization: education.

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts sharing thoughts from industry and technology leaders about 2018 trends and 2019 forecasts.]

Bill Mortimore is the CEO of Foundry, a project-based learning software company located in Milwaukee. He is the founder and former CEO of Merge Healthcare, a global healthcare IT vendor that went public and was later acquired by IBM for $1 billion. Follow @

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