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March 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 6

Commentary / Personalization: It's Anything But Personal

    Customization is supposed to be all about choice. But where's the choice in mass customized learning?

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      In 2010, mass customized learning (MCL) took the education marketplace by storm with the debut of Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwahn's self-published book, Inevitable. MCL's national tour began in the authors' home state of Maine, where I also live and work. So it isn't a surprise that everyone around me seems to have jumped on the mass customized learning bandwagon at some point during the past three years.
      Superintendents across the state have selected the book for school board and administrator study groups. At the public university where I worked as a teacher educator, my administrator offered to buy a copy for each education faculty member last year. Dozens of local districts—including those in the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning—have used the book to transform their curriculum or schedules. Despite the fact that many districts tumble off the MCL bandwagon a year (or less) after hopping on, Inevitable has managed to displace differentiation, yesterday's education buzzword du jour, with today's—personalized learning.
      Because few things are "inevitable" apart from death and taxes, we're long past due for a careful examination of the assumptions about teaching and learning that gave birth to the terms customized, individualized, and personalized learning. My complaints go beyond disdain for good words turned into jargon by the addition of the suffix "ize." In the case of personalized learning, it doesn't just elongate the root word and bestow on it a vague air of science; it actually changes its meaning entirely—from "personal" to its antonym, "anything but personal."
      So what do Schwahn and McGarvey mean by personalization? Their webpage (www.masscustomizedlearning.com) lays out the bandwagon appeal and enthusiastic use of italics that characterize their strategy: "Everybody is mass customizing. Everybody. Everybody except education."
      Never mind that "education" is not a "body"—we have bigger fish to fry. Because in the next breath, the authors illustrate what they mean by customization, the heart of their vision of personalized learning:
      <BQ> Pandora.com allows me (and you, of course) to customize my music radio station; My Yahoo allows me to customize my news page; Starbucks allows me to have a venti decaf with a little room. (www.masscustomizedlearning.com/content/what.htm) </BQ>
      Because the authors introduce these corporate examples as the basis for their education vision, we should examine the corporate view of the "personal" embedded in them. On the surface, customization and personalization are all about choice. If we're only going that far, I'm on board: I believe that students (and the teachers who teach them) should have plenty of choices.
      But notice what becomes of "the personal" in the choices offered. When customers are invited to customize products in order to personalize them, they're offered the dimmest possible patina of their personalities projected onto the surface of a standard product through several circumscribed options. These options give the consumer the illusion of control, but when you note the authors' repetition of the word allow ("Starbucks allows me to have … "), you get a better idea of who's really in control: the corporation. If we refer to this projection as "personalization," we cheapen our vision of the personal.
      This doesn't mean that I won't make use of some of these options: I'd rather order my car in a color that doesn't show dirt. But I don't pretend that the color of my car is personal or that it expresses "me" in any significant way. There's a big difference between buying a premade product tweaked according to your most trivial preferences and making or receiving something that's truly personal, something that emerges from your life story, from the things you know and want to know, from your wishes and fears—in short, from the things that make you you.
      Because I teach literacy methods courses to preservice teachers, I've listened to hundreds of college seniors recount formative literacy experiences. Many describe the homemade books their parents or grandparents created for them, books woven through with experiences they've had together or silly jokes they've exchanged or wishes they've expressed. These books are personal, not personal-ized.
      I've not heard a single student gush about the commercial version of these stories, although a friend told me about the customized gift his daughter received more than a decade ago: a video in which Barney, the purple dinosaur, interacts with the cartoon body of a child topped by [insert a photo of your child's head here]—with only a slight pause in the dialogue every time Barney addresses [insert your child's name here]. Although my students' homemade books often travel with them to college and beyond, this personalized cartoon, my friend told me, quickly became a family joke.
      Nevertheless, McGarvey and Schwahn (2010) seem to value these kinds of personalized products. While discussing Amazon, Schwahn asserts,
      Amazon knows me. They know my name, my purchasing history, my preferences. … All they needed was the whiz-bang technology to put Schwahn, my past book purchases, and the title of the new book together and, like magic, when I next open my Amazon account, there is the book I obviously need to have. (p. 9)
      Although it seems surprising for someone to claim that a company as large as Amazon "knows" him on the basis of its algorithms, there's no crime in McGarvey and Schwahn (2010) posing the questions that follow:
      Might Amazon's profiling competencies be used to help us identify the best/most effective learning styles of individual learners? Might their profiling insights and skills be used to identify the topics, content, people, or activities that interest that outgoing 5th grade girl or that quiet 15-year-old boy who always finds a seat in the back row? (p. 9)
      Well, sure, Google or Amazon can help teachers with a book recommendation. When I taught alternative high school, one of my students proudly claimed that she'd never read a book and never would. From countless conversations, I knew the themes and attitudes that appealed to her. Because none of the books in my repertoire seemed a good fit, I let Google help me find Han Nolan's Born Blue (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2003); and then I previewed and bought it through Amazon. After checking with the student's mother, I told the student that it felt a little risky to give her a book with such explicit content but that I thought she was mature enough to handle it. I read the first chapter to her until I could see her interest piquing. Then I found excuses to leave "for just a minute" until she grabbed the book for herself.
      Not only did she finish the book, but she also had an intense e-mail exchange about its ending with Nolan, subsequently finding and devouring every other book Nolan had written. This student's budding interest in reading was driven by my personal relationship with her. Sending her to Google or Amazon wouldn't have worked.
      But McGarvey and Schwahn's vision of personalized learning doesn't just suggest that teachers must sometimes use Google or Amazon as a tool, which just about every teacher already does. They're interested in using technology to get rid of the middleman. Their discussion of music delivery systems helps us better understand their vision:
      Apple has mass customized the selection process, the delivery process, and the listening experience … and is doing it cheaper than ever before … all while making big dollars. … iTunes makes it easy to find that song and download it directly to your iPhone in about a minute. All with one click. Your Visa card is debited, the artist's account is credited, and you are one-half of a duo doing "I Did It My Way" with Frank Sinatra. All friction free. No one did any work, no one other than you touched anything. And Steve Jobs buys another bottle of expensive Merlot. (2010, p. 7)
      To be fair, I share McGarvey and Schwahn's breathlessness about technology. Whenever I answer my cell phone, I imagine the caller disintegrating into bits, hurtling through space, and reassembling inside the receiver in miniature, like Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. I don't know how Verizon does it. But I'm not so breathless that I can't pause and interrogate this description of the process, which the authors will shortly apply to education:
      All friction free. No one did any work, no one other than you touched anything. And Steve Jobs buys another bottle of expensive Merlot.
      There are at least two significant problems with these three sentences. The second sentence just isn't true. iTunes may have gotten rid of the visible middle(wo)men—including independent music store owners who contribute to local economies and get to know customers' tastes. But someone is still doing the work. Apple requires plenty of humans to invoke its magic, the whiz-bang iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks we might use to download our customized music choices.
      It takes just one example to illustrate the moral stakes of pretending that no one other than you touched anything in this brave 21st century world. A 2012 New York Times article titled, "In China, Human Costs Are Built into the iPad," describes the string of workplace suicides as well as the harsh working conditions and underage employees at Apple's overseas factories (Duhigg &amp; Barboza, 2012). We can perhaps be forgiven our breathlessness, but not our blindness.
      Even if it were true that "no one other than you touched anything," we would still have to ask whether this hands-off approach is a good model for children's learning. It's a 20th century behaviorist fantasy that efficiency in the realm of human affairs should mean less human interaction. John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism, believed that nothing so ephemeral as mind or emotion exists—only physical responses to stimuli. He tested his theory on his own family, maintaining that "mother love is a dangerous instrument" and that children should not be touched. His results, I might add, were disastrous (Buckley, 1989).
      Watson's 19th century behaviorist experiment found many routes into education, including Watson's longtime collaboration with Robert Yerkes, the father of standardized testing in the United States. Behaviorist schooling methods fit perfectly with the "scientific" efficiency movement of the same period, which viewed human labor and interaction as impediments to fast, cheap products.
      These behaviorist assumptions are still firmly implanted in the notion of mass customized learning, that (1) technology will make education more efficient by getting rid of the daily face-to-face interactions between students and teachers, and (2) what makes you you can be reduced to your publically observable behavior—your online book purchases or the number of espresso shots you order in your Starbucks latte.
      Here's what all this customization looks like in the schools:
      Google and Bing can get any information you want in three clicks or less … (Well, not quite anything I guess; they don't seem to be able to tell me where I left those leather gloves that I paid big bucks for!) … Why not just put our curriculum on Google or Bing? Of course, this assumes that your curriculum, your learner outcomes, and the accompanying learning activities for those things that are best learned with a computer have been created. So get at it! (McGarvey &amp; Schwahn, 2010, p. 29)
      McGarvey and Schwahn envision a kind of national database of worksheets and online learning activities (games, videotapes, and so on). These are education's standard products, along with the standard learner outcomes linked to them—the two shots and 2 percent milk you get from Starbucks in a grande if you don't personalize. The educational personalization to all this educational standardization looks like this: Online (standardized) assessments tell students which standard worksheets and activities to download next, which they can complete wherever and whenever they like.
      Lori—McGarvey and Schwahn's hypothetical high school student—e-mails her teacher to approve the schedule she creates for herself through Yahoo Exchange Calendar. She spends most days on her computer at home, although her parents occasionally arrange a personal finance seminar at a local bank, and she meets friends sometimes at the Learner Center because they're all working on the same math outcomes. At one point, Lori bemoans her limited budget, which keeps her from working more frequently, coffee in hand, at Starbucks.
      But how to keep track of all of these children? McGarvey and Schwahn (2010) look to Walmart's barcodes. According to the authors, "What Walmart has done with the barcode is near genius … A humanized application … could allow school leaders to be anywhere and still be accountable for the whereabouts of each student, for the real-time accessing of individual student learning activities" (p. 12).
      Whether it is possible (let alone desirable) to "humanize" bar codes to keep track of children's whereabouts and activities, this is a lonely vision of school for actual human teenagers, despite Lori's hypothetical cheeriness about it all. The fact that school can be a lonely place for many teens should be a high order of concern for all educators, but the solution is not to disband the community and quite literally keep tabs on the children from a distance.
      With this vision of teaching, you can imagine why one of my most creative student-teachers came to my office last year in tears when the school she'd been placed in moved to mass customized learning—which meant that her job as a math teacher would be to collate, staple, distribute, and score individual math packets. And you can imagine why one of my colleagues in the National Writing Project—a true believer in personal learning whose school was one of the first in the Maine Coalition for Customized Learning—decided regretfully to pull his own children out of the district. McGarvey and Schwahn (2010) intuited, perhaps, the dissatisfaction that would inevitably follow the implementation of this approach, preempting it with, "In short, do what we tell you, darn it!" (p. 2).
      As the MCL train chugs across the United States, surely school leaders invited to jump on board won't be left so breathless by the whiz-bang magic of Bing that they confuse personalization with learning that's truly personal.
      Copyright © 2014 Maya Wilson

      Buckley, K. W. (1989). Mechanical man: John B. Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism. New York: Guilford Press.

      Duhigg, C., & Barboza, D. (2012, January 25). In China, human costs are built into the iPad. New York Times.

      McGarvey, B., & Schwahn, C. (2010). Inevitable: Mass customized learning (1st ed.). Seattle, WA: CreateSpace.

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