The Siliconization of Schools
Personalized learning and tech-filled curricula claim they will reinvent education. But there’s more to the story.
I remember when iPads were first introduced in my middle school. I was elated — no more boring worksheets, lugging around heavy textbooks, or having to wait seven long hours until I got home to go on the internet. This was going to revolutionize my educational experience. (In reality, the outcome was a bit more nuanced. While iPads were often helpful for making Quizlets, accessing class materials, and being able to easily search Google for information, as students, we used them just as much to online shop or play Geometry Dash.)
Since that fateful moment a few years back, technology has become a ubiquitous force in all of my classrooms — and in countless classrooms around the globe. Silicon Valley giants, such as Google and Salesforce, as well as leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, have been getting into the education world, backing EdTech programs and promising the wonders of personalized education, mentorship, and “learning-at-your-own-pace.” In a joint letter to their daughter, Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan state that personalized learning will not only help students perform better on tests, “but gain the skills and confidence to learn anything they want,” an expectation that has begun to gain widespread traction in the education world. It’s clear now — this new approach to learning is going to transform the world.
But wait — let’s slow down a bit. For many students, “cookie-cutter” education has been a problem — I’ve struggled with it myself. The transformation of education to promote individual goals and needs could indeed be revolutionary. But there are still many unanswered, even unasked, questions and potential problems lurking in the background. Before we get ahead of ourselves with Chromebooks and gamification, we need to explore the possible downsides of siliconized schools.
The Problem with Screens
Screens and algorithms are becoming increasingly present in classrooms. Zuckerberg-backed AltSchools (now Altitude Learning) had students begin their days with a playlist of videos and projects tailored to their skill levels and interests. Summit Learning (also Zuckerberg-backed) is an online platform that bases students’ learning around “projects” (and Portfolio Problems in math) and encourages teachers to mentor students and intervene as necessary. DreamBox, a software backed by Hastings, uses game-like elements as it guides students through personalized math lessons.
But the use of technology-based learning platforms has prompted criticism. Both parents and students have been frustrated by the amount of time students spend at school, sitting in front of screens. Then-freshman Mitchel Storman at the Secondary School for Journalism in Brooklyn, NY, told the New York Post in 2018, “It’s annoying to just sit there staring at one screen for so long. You have to teach yourself.” At the time, students from his school staged a walkout from their classes to protest the school’s use of Summit. Two other students from the school sent a letter to Zuckerberg, stating “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.”
Similar screen-time concerns were voiced at the now-closed chain of Carpe Diem schools. Carpe Diem schools involved students sitting at computers for a large portion of the day, working on individualized learning playlists. Their screen time was supposed to be supplemented by small-group work and teacher mentoring. However, the school’s call-center-like layout and reliance on individual, computer-based work didn’t appeal to many students, and enrollment numbers dropped.
Concerns have been raised about if personalized learning platforms are actually meeting their goals in helping students learn. Some former Summit teachers have experienced “students rac[ing] through lessons without actually understanding basic facts.”
Additionally, Brenda Peiffer, a parent of a third grader assigned DreamBox for homework, became concerned about the platform when she realized that her son “seemed more interested in spending points to customize his avatar than in actually doing math.”
Accessibility and Sustainability
Personalized learning strays from the established educational bureaucracy, which many have criticized as rigid and outdated. Of course, in some ways, that is a good thing. But with this change occurs growing pains, which will no doubt affect enrolled students along the way.
For one, many of the innovative, for-profit schools based around technology and personalized learning have high tuitions. The tuition of AltSchool was close to $30,000 (although it did offer financial aid). WeGrow — a school founded by Rebekah Neumann, the co-founder of WeWork — advocates its commitment to “elevating the collective consciousness of the world by expanding happiness and unleashing every human’s superpowers.” Or, at least, those humans who can afford a tuition of up to $42,000. As of now, it seems that the “cosmic education” made possible by personalized learning, algorithms, and technology is offered mostly to the children of America’s elite.
But even for those able to go to a school that promises personalized learning, all is not well. Silicon Valley operates by the mottos “move fast and break things” and “fail fast, fail often.” But when we’re talking about education — where, when, and how kids learn and gain opportunities that will help shape their future — failure can be devastating. Since opening, Carpe Diem and AltSchool have closed their original schools. WeGrow plans to close at the end of this academic year. After AltSchool’s closing, it faced criticism from parents, “who argued that their children had been guinea pigs for testing new modes of teaching, with the schools closing when they were no longer needed.”
So What Next?
If anything, the closing of these schools shows how difficult the process of reinventing education — making it personalized to students and preparing them for the world of the future, while still being affordable and accessible — is going to be. It shows us that despite what they may promise — Silicon Valley giants don’t know everything — and can’t be the only ones to lead the way in rethinking education. This will require insight, risks, and the facing of challenge after challenge — especially that — by all of us: students, teachers, government officials, kids, and every citizen who thinks they have an idea or can help change the education system for the better.