A recent article in Business Insider describes how Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg got their idea for digital personalized learning from special education. A light bulb lit, and they realized that students placed according to their academic level online is needed for every child—not just students with disabilities.
They liked the way special education teachers wrote Individual Education Plans (IEPs) starting 40 years ago. Teachers carefully analyzed what individual students needed to learn. Gates and Zuckerberg appreciated that it wasn’t “one-size-fits-all.”
It is interesting that these two tech magnates claim to think this way, and to a certain extent their argument is convincing. Many of us who worked in special ed. would agree that every student deserves an IEP, and placing students on academic programs at their targeted level can be useful.
Most teachers use some form of technology today in their classrooms.
But there are troubling differences between what Gates and Zuckerberg see as digital personalized learning and the personalized learning involved in special education. It is also concerning that they, and their tech friends, try to persuade us the two are one and the same.
Here are the differences:
- Children, all children, need teachers and classmates who are human. They need to be in the same room together interacting, and socializing—not sitting next to each other on individual computers working alone. Great joy occurs watching a student progress in school. It brings meaning to life for the student/s, teacher/s, and parents. Technology can certainly add to the equation, but it cannot replace this bond. Computers are thus far machines and not people.
- Students with disabilities, or students with differences of any kind, need acceptance by their peers. Like the above, technology might provide programs that teach about differences, but students need to learn how to get along with each other. They must have ample opportunities to do this in person. Teachers are best to help students do this in school. It is one reason recess is so critical to socializing.
- Ongoing online testing is impersonal. Every indication is that such assessment will replace end of the year testing. While excessive high-stakes standardized testing has not been good for students, continuous assessment online is cold and removes the teacher from the equation. The benefits of any kind of testing involves how teachers analyze and apply the results to instruction. A good IEP has always been about this. Without teachers, however, one has to wonder about both the quality of instruction and the shallow kind of assessment digital instruction is about.
- Gates alludes to children who are able to self-guide themselves online. Children with disabilities, and those without, are usually unable to direct their own learning. Even the most mature high school students are not always able to stay on task. Students with hyperactivity find it difficult to sit long at a computer. Making students get all of their instruction online is cruel and unusual for this reason. School is about teaching students the skills they will need to be organized adults, but it is wrong to assume they come to school already equipped with those skills.
- Cheating is still a huge concern with online instruction. Probably there will someday be better controls for cheating, but, as of today, many online programs, including university programs, lack the necessary online scrutiny to ensure that those who claim to do the work are actually doing it.
- Too much screen time is not physically and/or mentally healthy. Educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, who wrote Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Children’s Minds—and What We Can Do About It, describes physical problems of young children with eye and back strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and headaches. Some children develop problems with their posture. These same difficulties can affect teens too. They might become confused between fantasy and reality. We have all heard of adolescents who distance themselves from family and friends because they become addicted to online games and activities.
- Gates praises Summit Sierra Public School which is really a charter school. Most charter schools do not serve students with special needs. Praising this school in an article about personalized learning and disabilities seems out of place. The fact that Mr. Gates and so many digital personalized learning enthusiasts are on board for school privatization makes one question their ulterior motives when it comes to technology. There is little research to indicate such schools work.
- Where are the studies and proof? The Business Insider article points to two pro-digital personalized studies. Neither is authored by educators. Nor is there indication that they are peer reviewed. A recent performance review by education researchers Gary Miron and Charisse Gulosino of the National Education Policy Center indicates that outcomes from virtual learning are lower than traditional schooling. And a recent book by Nicholas Kardaras titled Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance is also damning of technology in schools. More studies are needed.
- Digital personalized instruction as “disruptive” is a negative factor for students. Technology replacing educators and schools may sound trendy, but children, especially children with special needs, thrive in safe, stable, and secure settings. Breaking up schools to dramatically transform them to total online instruction can only be confusing to children. Education researchers, special and general education teachers can spot what needs to be changed in the curriculum and do it gradually.
- Cyberbullying is still a problem. In special or general education classes, teachers are always on the lookout for students who bully, or children who are bullied. They can directly intervene. Cyberbullying is a different dilemma. Often it can occur without knowing the names of the bullies. Children might suffer in silence.
- Privacy issues are a concern. Children with or without disabilities, and their parents, are sensitive to test results, a student’s behavior, and a variety of other factors in a child’s life. Special education teachers have always been considerate of privacy issues when it comes to a child’s disabilities and their progress in school. But there are grave concerns about data collected, stored, and shared online in regard to a student’s school progress.
- Students are shortchanged by missing out on group learning. While identifying targeted academic placement for students has advantages, sometimes mixed group instruction can help a student with lower skills advance to a higher level. It can have the added personal benefit of allowing students with the higher skills feel good about themselves in a helping role.
Incorporating some online instruction into the curriculum can be a good thing to individualize instruction and is similar to special education. Adding classes in remote areas of the country and for homebound students is a positive alternative.
But most parents and teachers want technology as a supplement to instruction. They fear total online schools that push teachers out and reduce brick-and-mortar buildings to charter warehouses.
Individualizing a student’s program of learning can only benefit each and every student, but there are many ways for this to occur, and the professional teacher, with parental involvement and approval, should be put in charge to determine the best way forward.
The benefits of having real teachers interact with students will never be satisfactorily replaced by machines. And this is especially true in the area of special education.