Note: This is a piece I wrote for ITSE's Learning and Leading with Technology magazine. They have a Point-Counterpoint feature. You can read the whole conversation on LinkedIn.
In today’s world, virtually all information we consume is customized for us. In his influential book and TED talk, Eli Pariser describes the phenomena of “The Filter Bubble”, where algorithms in search engines and social networks make judgements about our needs, our desires, and our beliefs; and deliver to us a totally individualized internet experience.
This is convenient, perhaps, when Google knows that we are planning a vacation and automatically delivers information about the very destination we are considering. But when our newsfeed delivers us only political perspectives we already agree with, editing out the opposing viewpoints, this becomes problematic.
Education can fall into a very similar trap. Today, the usual suspects in “big education”, as well as disruptive interlopers like Khan Academy, are lining up to provide sophisticated technological tools to assess our students and deliver highly individualized solutions to their learning needs. On the surface, this notion is difficult to argue against. Of course, teachers ought to take the individualized needs of students into account. Of course, education is best served by tapping into every student’s unique interests and perspectives.
But this total focus on the individual can create another sort of filter bubble, one that emphasizes the things that make us different, rather than those things we have in common. It minimizes the value of working together, and sharing a common experience.
We seem to have lost touch with a basic truth: we may all be unique individuals, but fundamentally humans are social creatures. It is the way we live and work, and learn.
Perhaps, technologically speaking, we are approaching the point where technology can do a decent job assessing a student’s skill gaps and delivering a program to address them. But this doesn’t really authentically simulate an environment where real world problems are solved. Most often we solve problems collectively; in groups, teams, communities and societies.
So, education is only truly successful insofar as it can prepare us for applying our individual talents while working with others. This often means putting aside our individual needs. We don’t usually get to choose our colleagues, preferred learning style, schedule, or how our work is assessed.
Clearly, educators should care about the individual needs of our students. We may wish to nurture individual talent, creativity - even genius. To that end, some individualized education is appropriate. But as a technology focused educator, I am most excited about teaching tools that enable us to work together and collaborate in new and innovative ways.