Leonie Haimson, parent activist who fights for smaller class size and student privacy, has strong reservations about Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s decision to devote a considerable share of their vast fortune to “personalized learning.” She wonders whether he is making a mistake that has even larger consequences than the $100 million he squandered in Newark, led along by Mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie.

 

Haimson points out that some leading corporations in the technology industry have been data mining students and invading their privacy. That’s bad enough. But a recent OECD study concluded that the students who use computers the most in the classroom have the lowest scores, even when demography is taken into account. Zuckerberg has already funded a chain of for-profit private schools that rely heavily on computer instruction. But the history of such schools is unimpressive.

 

This is not a research-based approach to improving education, she writes. Some studies show that computer-based instruction actually widens achievement gaps.

 

The truth is there are NO good studies that show that online or blended instruction helps kids learn, and the whole notion of “personalized” learning is a misnomer, as what it usually signifies is depersonalized machine-based learning. All software can do is ask a series of multiple choice questions and then wait for the right or the wrong answer. It cannot read an essay or give feedback on how to improve an argument, or help extricate a child from a knotty math problem. It cannot encourage students to confront all the various angles in a controversy, as happens through debate and discussion with teachers and classmates. In fact, learning through computers reduces contextualization and conceptualization to stale pre-determined ideas, the opposite of the creative and critical thinking that we are supposed to be aiming for in the 21st century.

 

One thing is sure: Zuckerberg’s initiative will be good for the industry. Not so clear that it will be good for students.