The pitfalls of personalization

Mass personalization is a big concept with a subtle sting. It involves gathering data on individuals and groups in order to tailor products and services to them. It surrounds them with stuff that supposedly reflects their likes and needs; it can be quite hard to get through this customized swarm.

For instance, Google Instant predicts your search strings as you type, stores your responses to its suggestions, and uses the data to improve its predictions. Facebook gathers information on what you and your friends “like” and then displays advertisements based on your “likes.” Amazon recommends books on the basis of your purchase patterns and the patterns of those who have purchased similar books. The general idea is to figure out what you’re likely to buy and then get you to buy it–that is, to make the probable actual.

In education, mass personalization is supposed to deliver individualized instruction for all. The hope is that all students will make progress if the instruction is matched to them. In its National Education Technology Plan, the U.S. Department of Education describes the ASSISTment system, used by more than 4,000 public schools in Worcester, Massachusetts. This system collects data on students’ performance and problem-solving behavior (such as their help-seeking patterns), and offers students personalized hints and tutoring.

Along similar lines, Wireless Generation sells software that, according to GothamSchools, allows teachers to record their observations of students with a mobile device. The software then sorts and analyzes the data. The New York City Department of Education plans to renew its contract with Wireless Generation; this will allow the company to sell its mobile devices and software to New York City schools.

Several existing Wireless Generation products may be involved. The mClass® assessment and analysis tools consist of mobile device and data-analyzing software. The mobile device gives the teacher a question to ask the student (in reading or mathematics). The device then records the student’s answer and enters it into a database. Having gathered data, the software generates reports and individualized learning plans. It makes suggestions for groupings of students, homework activities, and more.

There is something unsettling about this contract, beyond the possible conflict of interest (former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein is now executive vice president at News Corporation, which purchased Wireless Generation shortly after he accepted the position). The products essentially contain and constitute a curriculum (and pedagogy to boot). Moreover, mass personalization may limit the very subjects; part of education involves being confronted with things one does not know, like, or understand.

The curriculum debate has gotten quite heated lately, but there is probably one point of agreement: if there is to be a curriculum (local, state, or national), those affected by it should be able to see and discuss it in advance. In this case, the information has not been public. Who wrote the questions that teachers are supposed to ask? Who selected the reading passages and math problems? Has any of this been laid out for the public to see?

The products contain an implied pedagogy as well. They create instructional plans for each student and show teachers how to configure the classroom. This could inhibit whole-class instruction and the kinds of topics that require it. What is the logic behind the student groupings, and who says students should be put in groups in the first place? The products’ creators seem to assume that subjects consist of a progression of skills and that students should work on these skills at their own pace, individually or in small groups. This is by no means a given.

Subjects can be leveled and individualized only up to a point. In every subject, there are topics that touch many levels and go beyond skills. There are subjects worth knowing and learning because they are important, not because they necessarily occupy the point between A and C. A course or curriculum should progress from the simple to the complex, from the easy to the difficult—but once you reach a certain level or touch on certain topics, the levels become somewhat ambiguous. A work of literature can be easy in one way and difficult in another. So can a math problem. There is reason to study many topics as a whole class; different students may offer different insights, and all may come to see the topic in ways they didn’t before.

Automated individualization can be limiting for student and teacher. Students may lose the patience for working with anything difficult. They may rely on automated hints and canned questions. The instruction may be fragmented, as the teacher must divide her attention among individuals and groups. The emphasis on skills may inhibit the study of a topic for its content; the emphasis on customization may confine students to the familiar. Moreover, it could be difficult for teachers to alter much of this. Even if they have the authority to plan their own lessons, they will be under pressure to follow the software’s recommendations (after all, it is expensive).

Mass personalization may be the future of education, or part of it. That does not make it rosy.

Note: I edited the post after publishing it (but before any comments appeared).


  1. I’m somewhat creeped out by the idea of an electronic curriculum that tracks my responses to previous challenges and customizes my progress through a topic or discipline. The whole idea of education is to make us able to learn from situations that are not built for us, but simply ARE. I can see the benefit when the lens through which I see this process is the need to keep on track, to remediate, to get to the end of the line. But if the goal is bigger, this method would not be my choice of how to do it.

  2. This presages an ugly, inhumane future. It is also disturbing that Joel Klein will apparently profit personally from the contract that his ex-employer has signed with his new employer. It is particularly important that educational leaders set an ethical example beyond reproach, and that does not appear to be what has happened here. I don’t want my son to have anything to do with a world where shallow people grow rich and are considered successes by means of pushing their connections with equally shallow number-crunching digerati, and I am afraid that is the impression much of the country has of New York’s business elite, whose stereotype Mr. Klein appears to be reinforcing.