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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/15/2010

Mass personalization: Is this good for education?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture. Her education writing has appeared in numerous places, including Education Week, the Core Knowledge Blog, GothamSchools, and American Educator.

By Diana Senechal
In their recent paper “An American Examination System,” Lauren B. Resnick and Larry Berger herald new era of “mass personalization” in education. According to their vision, the new assessments—based on the Common Core State Standards—will be tailored to students’ individual learning levels, just as and Netflix recommendations are tailored to individual customers’ apparent preferences.

The principle of “mass personalization” is straightforward: by gathering data on individual customers, a company can target its advertising. Some engines, like Amazon’s, make product recommendations based on a customer’s purchase patterns, product ratings, and other data. Supposedly, the more data the engine gathers, the more accurate its predictions become.

Some companies use a combination of data gathering and behavioral targeting—advertising based on a customer’s perceived personality type. According to the Wall Street Journal, Capital One’s website uses the calculations of the online-marketing company [x + 1] Inc. to determine which ads to show you first.

These calculations are based not only on your web browsing and purchase history but also on your demographic group. Similarly, Google assigns users to categories based on the Web pages they visit. Developers are also working on “relevance engines”—engines that deliver precisely the information likely to interest an individual in a given situation.

Insofar as it boosts sales and makes them more predictable, mass personalization benefits the company selling the products. If a company can match the right advertisement to the right person, then it will likely sell more. In some cases mass personalization may benefit the customer as well. For instance, someone looking for something to read may appreciate Amazon’s recommendations. Someone who travels regularly may appreciate special deals that meet his or her needs.

But mass personalization has an eerie side. Besides eroding privacy, it may streamline individual tastes. Amazon won’t offer you an out-of-print book because of something in the fifth chapter that reminded it of you. It has no knowledge of the actual book or reader.

The “personalized” marketing is actually impersonal. The targeting may well work; customers may decide to follow them. But in doing so, they give up some of their own judgment. They start to believe in the engine—and that is exactly the point.

Now, what would “mass personalization” look like in education?

We already have an example in the the School of One, piloted in New York City and now undergoing expansion. In this system, teachers receive computer-generated lesson plans based on computerized analyses of student skill mastery. Instruction is modular and ever-changing; one day a teacher may teach three topics to three groups, and the next day the groups and topics may be shuffled.

The new assessments based on the Common Core State Standards may end up resembling this model. According to Resnick and Berger, the American Examination System would “mass customize a much wider range of formative assessments at the student and class level.” The technology would figure out “which formative assessment to give and when”—thus relieving teachers of the burden of such decisions.

Moreover, each assessment will be personalized “so that the enhanced resolution it provides is targeted to an individual student’s current learning level as well as to appropriate standards of reliability and validity.”

But here’s the catch. If a test is so closely tailored to a student’s needs, what happens to the subject itself? What would happen to a course on lyric poetry? How could a teacher focus on Tennyson when required to give five different formative assessments—none of which have anything to do with Tennyson—to five groups of students? How would teachers teach complex topics in mathematics or history, topics that require time, thought, and struggle? How would students learn to strive for things beyond their immediate grasp?

Customized assessments are likely to fragment instruction. With different students in the same class taking different tests, and all the pressure on teachers to raise scores on these tests, there will be little room for literature courses at all—or for anything that requires sustained instruction and study.

Students will likely receive profiles of their abilities, progress, learning styles, learner types, and more. Their assignments and class work will be matched to their profiles. Schools may even go further; in an effort to motivate students, they may purchase “relevance engines” that match reading passages to students on the basis of their interests and moods. Students will expect the passages to appeal to them immediately.

Mass personalization may become a form of mass imprisonment. There is more to us than the trends that surround us, more to the world than instant appeal, and more to education than what a learning profile says. Let us challenge students to come out of their customized mini-worlds to learn something they have never before seen or heard.

“Mass personalization” may be underway whether we like it or not, but no one is obligated to bow to it. A trend need never put the mind to sleep.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 15, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, National Standards, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  common core standards, diana senechal, mass personalization, school reform  
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OMG get a grip. Schools are a big fail now. Students go through school in one big mob, taught the same thing at the same time. Students who can complete the work in 6 weeks sit in class for a year learning nothing, students who need one year and six weeks go back to the beginning and sit through the same class for two years.

The School of One is the future. Students are responsible for their own education with tutoring available on when they need it. Personalizing education allows for wider study, not narrower. In traditional education students all read one book, the same book and it is so disorganized that teachers can assign the same book to the same student twice. Stop romanticizing a systems that has consistently had a drop out rate of at least 70%. All of us who went through traditional schools were alternately bored out of our skulls or were left behind because it would have taken 5 minutes to bring us up to speed and "if a teacher spent and extra 5 minutes per student nothing would get done".

Personalized education is the disruption schools need to reach and teach all students to their potential.

Posted by: suenoir | September 15, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse


At least 70% dropout rate? Pure, uninformed nonsense.

And which is it, students are responsible for their learning, or "it would have taken 5 minutes to bring us up to speed" which puts the onus back on teachers?

Figure out your complaint, then write.

Posted by: tfteacher | September 15, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

The completion rate, then.

"Official estimates of state completion rates are too high, and the U.S. Department of Education is examining ways to obtain better measurements. One National Center for Education Statistics
series going back to the 1880s is on the mark, but never seems to be reported in the press.

A number of independent researchers have made recent estimates that put the national rate variously at 66.1, 66.6, 68.7, 69.6, and 71.0 percent.

Posted by: suenoir | September 15, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Should I even bother?

Why not - Sue, if the completion rate is 70%, then the dropout rate is 30%. Completion is the opposite of dropout.

Posted by: landerk1 | September 16, 2010 12:22 AM | Report abuse

There is no reason a teacher cannot use a single text over an extended period of time and still individualize instruction for his or her students. This might involve allowing individual students to select different methods of demonstrating their understanding, or giving different assignments that all use the same text but focus on developing different skills. This way students will develop the common knowledge and can each individually strengthen the skills they need to work on.

Posted by: gideon4ed | September 16, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse


I agree. The problem with "mass personalization" is that it may override a teacher's judgment and even the curriculum. There may be pressure on teachers to group students according to skill need and give mini-lessons to each group. That would make it hard to spend time with a text.

Just one minor quibble with your excellent point: I don't think of it as "using" a text. The literature is worthy in itself; it is not just a means toward knowledge or skills. I would want students to read Shakespeare's Sonnet 146 not just to learn about metaphor (though they will), but to get those wonderful paradoxes in their ears and minds: "So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, / And Death once dead, there's no more dying then." Those lines are both logical and mysterious at once; they make perfect sense and yet push beyond sense. There is no standard that articulates what can be found in the two lines of that sonnet.

Posted by: DianaSenechal | September 16, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

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