Ed-Tech Utopia Is Over

For two decades, technology seduced us, sleek devices and clever apps promising us a better, tech-enabled life. Tech would liberate, enlighten, and most of all, connect us. Now that dream has shattered. The fevered claims of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Wired magazine futurists now seem naïve, reckless. Tech-utopia is over.

Is “personalized learning” and ed tech headed for the same reckoning?

Mark Zuckerberg said he started Facebook because “you couldn’t find and connect with the people that you cared about, which as people is actually the most important thing. So that seems like a pretty big hole that needed to get filled.”

Zuckerberg sought connection, but the behemoth he created has inadvertently fostered division and hatred. Speech is coarsened, partisanship enflamed. Yet the damage is larger still. Facebook has eroded authentic connection and personal well-being. The vapid “like” button addicted users to jolts of affirmation. People the world over now exist in a state of “continuous partial attention,” chronically distracted and unable to focus. The capacity to build authentic connection is diminished, for “friends” are not friends.

Young people are perhaps most at risk from his invention. Teenagers now spend a staggering nine hours a day on average engaged with digital media—more time than spent sleeping or in school—and children from low-income families spend almost two hours more still. Forty-five percent of American teenagers now report that they are online “almost constantly.”

At the annual “Habit Conference” in San Francisco, entrepreneurs and technologists gather to learn how to make their apps as addictive as possible. Conference organizer Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has written that “the technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions.” Social media advertisers and designers both know that “feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” Eyal explains.

Multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies have found that time on Facebook, specifically, correlated with compromised well-being, including self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction. After controlling for a user’s current condition, Facebook usage predicted future diminished well-being. Over roughly the last decade, as smartphones and social media came to dominate the lives of young people, symptoms consistent with major depression rose 52 percent among teens, and rates of psychological distress—defined as feeling nervous, hopeless, worthless, or that everything in life is an effort—increased by 71 percent among young adults. Suicide rates among 18- and 19-year-olds climbed 56 percent.

These are not bloodless statistics. Children are suffering.

Some prominent social media executives now express remorse for what they built. Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of growth has said, “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” He added, “I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds.”

People need authentic relationships, for which there is no substitute.

Yet as the world awakens to this tech dystopia, Silicon Valley investors’ and philanthropists’ pursuit of tech-driven “personalized learning,” where computers replace or supplement human teachers, intensifies. Investment in personalized learning by newly-created funds of technology billionaires now swamps investment in all other school reform strategies combined. Consider Zuckerberg’s investments alone. He and his wife Priscilla Chan announced in 2016 that over their lifetimes they would give 99 percent of their Facebook shares, then estimated to be worth $45 billion, to three causes, of which personalized learning (which they see as including social and emotional learning) is the first. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will develop software “that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”

At one level, all of us fighting for better schools would be thrilled for them to succeed. If technology could deliver dramatic learning gains, millions of children would benefit. But as yet, the results are discouraging.

Teach to One, a prominent and deeply creative personalized learning initiative, has dispiriting results despite nearly a decade of refinement. Once called “the future of math” by Bill Gates, named by Time as one of the top 50 inventions of 2009, and funded by Chan Zuckerberg and several other Silicon Valley fortunes, Teach to One failed to boost results on state tests, according to a major new study from Columbia’s Teachers College. The tests measure grade-level skills and may mask progress for students who begin far behind, the organization notes, pointing to a Gates-funded study that showed above-average gains on adaptive MAP tests. Still, even by this measure the average student taught for three years with Teach to One remained below the nationwide median.

Summit Public Schools, a well-regarded charter network in California, opened its first school in Silicon Valley. Personalized learning plays an important part in the school, but so do project-based learning and long-term mentors, making it difficult to attribute educational effects to a single component. A study of networks by Stanford’s CREDO found positive achievement effects from Summit’s charters, but with effect sizes smaller than networks like KIPP, Achievement First, Success, and Uncommon Schools that rely on traditional teacher-led instruction.

Summit offered its Summit Learning Program, developed in conjunction with Facebook, for free to schools around the country, thanks to support from Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the Bezos Family Foundation. Today, 72,000 students use Summit. Little is known about academic results or student and parent satisfaction, though a recent New York Times article highlights dissatisfaction in a small district in Kansas. Many districts and parents like the system, citing benefits beyond achievement. But parents and students in some districts have objected to the amount of children time spent in front of computers, an omnipresent blue bar tracking their progress toward skill mastery. At one Brooklyn school, the Secondary School for Journalism, students staged a walk-out to have the personalized component of their day eliminated immediately. “[T]here is a huge class divide, with the children of the wealthy having small classes and real personalized learning in schools that minimize screen time, while public school students like us are expected to learn by a computer in front of our faces for hours at a time with educators only there to ‘facilitate’,” they wrote Zuckerberg in an open letter. “Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking. … [W]e urge you to conduct an independent evaluation of Summit involving students who have given their consent before re-imposing it on thousands of unwilling public school students.”

Summit had commissioned a proposal from education researchers Tom Kane and Marty West of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research on Summit’s student outcomes, as no academic evidence was available to schools of the program’s effectiveness. But Summit dropped the research plan. Founder Diane Tavenner told Chalkbeat that she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools. “I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” she said. Ardor rarely welcomes scrutiny.

Research on the effectiveness of personalized learning is strikingly limited. The largest and most rigorous study of achievement effects was undertaken from 2012 to 2015 by the RAND Corporation and funded by the Gates Foundation. The achievement gains of students in 32 personalized learning schools were compared against those of students drawn from a national data set with similar initial achievement levels and demographic characteristics. The schools had all competed successfully, on the strength of their personalized learning programs, for grant funding from an organization devoted to promoting such methods. As most were charters, they were schools of choice; as the study’s authors allow, their parents might favor nontraditional schooling methods for their children. Despite these two selection biases, the report found only modest positive treatment effects (the equivalent for a median student of three percentile rank points in one year), though the effects were not statistically significant in math. Regrettably, the RAND study is not an outlier. Technology solutions are not driving major achievement gains; in fact, recent reviews of research on elementary reading find near-zero effects from technology-assisted approaches, and elementary math effects are only slightly better.

What keeps the hope alive? Zuckerberg and nearly every personalized learning advocate cite a 1984 study by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom which found that students who received one-on-one tutoring from a teacher on average performed better than 98 percent of control group students. The particular claim seems extravagant, but subsequent research also finds outsized effects from tutoring. Tutors customize their instruction to each student’s need, and computers, personalized learning advocates argue, can do that too, and better.

But what if the strength of tutoring stems not from personalized content but from human connection? That’s the argument made by education researcher Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins. He reviewed 78 high-quality studies (65 met the gold standard of random assignment) of a variety of mathematical programs. One-on-one and one-on-small group tutoring had the largest impacts (effect sizes of about +0.32). By contrast, technology approaches had an effect size of only +0.07. “Tutors,” he writes, “must contribute something powerful beyond personalization.” They offer “human connection, encouragement and praise. “A tutored child wants to please his or her tutor, not by completing a set of computerized exercises but by seeing a tutor’s eyes light up and voice respond when the tutee makes progress.” Tutoring, he argues, “does not work due to individualization alone. It works due to individualization plus nurturing and attention.” And, in fact, a national survey by an online learning advocacy organization found that teachers in personalized learning schools knew less about their students’ lives, interests, motivations, and challenges than their colleagues in traditional schools.

Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley executives seem determined to keep computers out of their own children’s hands—and schools. One school popular in Silicon Valley, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, is known for its unorthodox methods. It avers that exposing students to technology earlier than the seventh grade “can hamper their ability to fully develop strong bodies, healthy habits of discipline and self-control, fluency with creative and artistic expression and flexible and agile minds.” Computers, the Waldorf schools believe, inhibit human interaction, attention spans, and creative thinking. Alan Eagle, a parent at the school who works at Google and has written speeches for its chairman, Eric Schmidt, said, “I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school.” Another parent at Waldorf who works at a technology start-up said real engagement comes from great teachers: “Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”

Zuckerberg has said that “unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough,” No. Let’s slow down.

Education reform in this country has long been undermined by impatience and faddism. Fads offer distraction and respite; real innovation requires persistence. Fads often take the form of educational technology, whatever the flavor du jour. Filmstrip projectors, once. Closed-circuit televisions later. Then interactive video disks. Soon after, internet connected-classrooms to “bridge the digital divide.” Tablets for every student, a decade ago. And now “personalized learning.” We should not be so credulous.

Today, entrepreneurs and academics are developing new technologies that tap artificial intelligence to discern students’ misconceptions, scaffold their thinking, and offer encouragement. In artificial experimental conditions, generally with university students, some have shown promise with STEM content. Investment in such research should continue, but it should not displace investment in other approaches that are working today with actual children, including gap-closing urban charter networks that do not rely on educational technology.

A headlong rush into personalized learning will not only jeopardize the essential bond between teachers and their students; it will replace capital for labor, enrich corporations while deskilling teachers, and depress educators’ already marginal compensation and standing.

Enough screen time. Our students need authentic relationships, not Silicon Valley simulacrums. Corporations already aim to substitute robots for pets and dolls for human companions. But must children be taught by machines? One can imagine, not long from now, a parent and student rebellion—#realteachers.

It is not too late to avert this dystopia.

Steven F. Wilson is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ascend Learning. This post originally appeared on their website.

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