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The Arguments Against Personalized Learning: Keeping the personal in school

Carlee Nelson

Western Oregon University


Over the last couple of decades, our classrooms and students have been constantly

inundated with technology, which has been changing how students are learning, interacting, and

thinking. As the landscape has changed, there are some that assert that school is not keeping up.

Beginning in the 1920s, there have been various attempts to use adapted learning technology and

automated teachers to meet student needs and personalize education. However, different

members in the education technology field argue that personalizing education is more

detrimental than beneficial. A challenge with discussing personalized learning is that it has a

variety of definitions: using technology to give students more freedom to control their education

experience (Riley, 2014a, para. 2); programmed instruction (Watters, 2016, para. 18);

differentiated learning paths and constant feedback (Hernandez, 2014); or adjusting the

difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students test scores (Kohn,

2015, para. 5).

This essay will define personalized learning and personalization as instruction that uses

technology to individualize the learning experience to each student. In fact, this individualized

instruction and student differences are key arguments of the supporters of personalized learning.

Currently, there are dozens of initiatives, grants, and supporters of this form of personalized

learning. These supporters claim that new developments in technology and software can provide

personalization, which could then improve student learning and performance. However, there is

an opposing group with significant arguments against personalized learning; specifically, they

mention the social and human aspects of school.

Support for personalized learning

Supporters of personalized learning have a few key arguments: it increases student

achievement; there is more student control, more differentiation, and greater feedback. The

majority of the support comes from textbook and technology companies with two of the biggest

supporters of personalized learning being Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Both of them have

invested heavily in artificial intelligence and/or adaptive learning technology and they firmly

believe in technology and personalized learnings ability to improve test scores and performance.

A strength of adaptive technology is that there have been advancements that enable it to collect

information on student habits, performance, and preferences. This information can then help

personalize instruction to each student because it can better predict their needs and preferences.

Much of these individuals involvement has been monetary. For instance, Mark

Zuckerberg recently gave funds to various charter schools in Silicon Valley to pilot a

personalized learning platform, Basecamp, that gives students access to all of the topics

(modules) they need to learn and then they can decide the pace, place, and content for each

lesson. Zuckerbergs involvement in education is relatively new, while Bill Gates has been a

central figure in education for decadesfrom policies to researchand Gates claims that

personalized learning technology can bridge the achievement gap. In an interview with The

Verge, he describes how personalized learning can prevent boredom of the advanced students

and help poor performing students get caught up (Newton, 2016). His overall claim is that

personalized instruction will give students the power to move at their own pace and skill level.

Alex Hernandez (2014), a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, described a handful of

supporting claims that echo both Gates and Zuckerberg. His first argument is that personalized

learning is better able to account for student differences and variation in background knowledge

and that standards and grades are arbitrary. Like Gates, he claims that personalized learning

helps bridge achievement gaps by helping lower performing students catch up and challenging

the advanced students. Next, he argues that there can be an increase in quantity and speed of

feedback because it can come from multiple sources. His final argument is that students can own

their learning. Other proponents of technology also praise its ability to provide individualized

instruction with immediate feedback

In their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the

World Learns, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2011) applaud personalized learnings ability to

provide courses and classes that a school cannot. Various reasons can keep a school from being

able to offer certain classes, but technology can provide students with the opportunity to learn

about different topics that they wouldnt be able to otherwise (ex. foreign languages, coding,

architecture, various sciences, etc.). There are also many resources that have standardized

videos, practice, and assessments, like Khan Academy, that are used to help struggling or

advanced students. These and similar resources are being used to further individualize,

differentiate, and personalize learning.

The opposition: Nothing gets more personal than people

There are many more arguments against personalized learning than support, which Alex

Hernandez (2014) (a member of the support) even admits. Personalized learning overlooks

many key parts of school and the opponents to personalized learning bring that to light. One

writer, Ben Riley (2014), directly argues against Hernandezs arguments for personalized

learning. His arguments are that there are better ways than personalized learning to help

individuals succeed, create a learning environment that meets them at their ability level, and

recognize their learning differences than personalized learning. The opposition to personalized

learning asserts that it eliminates the social aspects and benefits of school, students arent fit to

control their learning, it doesnt compare to the quality of instruction of teachers, and is invasive

of students privacy.

An opponent to personalized learning, Phil McRae (2013), describes the socially

constructed nature of learning and its role in school in his post Rebirth of the teaching machine

through the seduction of data analytics: This time its personal. He claims that student-to-

student interactions are a key to school because they encourage social, emotional, cultural, and

deeply intrapersonal experiences (para. 48). As our peers question and challenge our beliefs

and views, we are forced to learn from and evaluate them. If students are given computers to

personalize their learning, then they will miss the opportunities to have group discussions,

debates, and peer feedback in real time with facial and body expressions. Students should have

the opportunity to grow from human interactions.

The various interactions in the classroom also enhance learning and create a sense of

community in the classroom. In a blog post by Dan Meyer (2013), Mike Caulfield, the director

of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver and an editor for

the EDUCAUSE Review, asserts that structured discussion is how we externalize thought so

that we can tinker with it and refactor it (para. 5). Another opponent and education writer,

Audrey Watters (2014), adds to the discussion by questioning the effects on the communal goals

of educationshe asks questions like, What happens to the idea that we must work through

ideas together? (para. 27). A goal of many schools is to create an individual that is prepared

to participate in the world, which requires the ability to cooperate and work with others.

In The Ideology of Personalization, Benjamin Riley (2014b) responded to each of Alex

Hernandezs three arguments. Rileys first counterclaim is against Hernandezs argument that

personalized learning honors background knowledge: Riley claims that we should take note of

and focus our instruction on the cognitive similarities. Students shared interests (ex. pop

culture) can be used to reach them as they are able to identify with the content. Hernandezs

next argument is that personalized learning can provide more feedback, but Riley responds that

more doesnt necessarily mean better (para. 5). For instance, teachers can give detailed

feedback and suggestions based on students previous work, discussions in class, or what their

peers are doing, while many technology devices can only give right/wrong answers.

Next, Riley (2014b) claims that Alexs argument about students needing to own their

learning simply reiterates the aspirational goals of personalized learning (para.6). He agrees

with the concept of students developing confidence, but isnt sure if personalized learning is the

best method to accomplish that. One of Rileys last arguments is that evidence for the success of

technology interventions is minimal with the greatest effect size of .52 (para. 8). Mark

Zuckerberg and Bill Gates argue that personalized learning has greater achievement, but it lacks

substantial support. Granted this evidence is from a meta-analysis of only 130 interventions and

there might have been successful studies, but this data cant be completely disregarded.

Mark Zuckerbergs learning platform and concept of giving students control has potential

as it lets students own their learning and that ownership can raise confidence. Students should

have a say in their learning and control of different aspects, but there are arguments against

giving it all to them. In another post, Dont Personalize Learning, Riley (2014a) argues

against the path and pace arguments. As far as the path argument, there is evidence that

background knowledge is needed to learn somethingif we let students pick what they want to

learn and they dont have the necessary knowledge, and then they will most likely struggle.

Riley then cites research that says, learners often misregulate their learning, exerting control in

a misguided or counterproductive fashion (para. 5).

Another argument for student control is pace. This argument means that students will be

able to decide how quickly they move through different topics. However, this argument assumes

that students have the motivation to work. Riley (2014a) argues that many students struggle with

being motivated to work on tasks and keep moving towards a goal and he references cognitive

science findings that our minds are not built to think (para. 8). This doesnt suggest that

students should never think or take on challenging subjects, but asserts that, if given the choice,

it is more likely that students would move slower. In order to give them some control, students

should be given the opportunity to work at their own pace, but teachers can easily facilitate that.

Both Riley and Watters make a case for the powerful influence and effects of teachers.

Teachers can observe student difficulty with quick informal assessments and observations that

will immediately influence their instruction. They can observe a student during class and use

their interactions to discover her preferences, needs, learning style, and many other factors that

would influence her learning. In Rileys (2014a) words, effective instruction requires

understanding the varying cognitive abilities of students and finding ways to impart knowledge

in light of that variation (para. 11). Body language tells a lot about how people are feeling and

teachers, not technology, can recognize positive or negative body language, constantly informing

and adjusting their instruction.

Also, teachers provide one thing that technology never can: emotion. They are able to

show compassion, understanding, enthusiasm, frustration, and excitement. There is much more

to school than learning about facts; students are learning skills and tools that go beyond their

academic performance. In order for learning to occur, students have basic needs that have to be

met and teachers contribute to and are major part of creating a safe, exciting, and fun

environment. Just like student-to-student interactions help develop their character and social

skills, so do interactions with their teachers.

Watters (2014) also expresses concerns with the use of adaptive learning technology and

how it stores and uses student data. Knewton, a test prep company, is working with major

publishers to develop content with adaptive learning technology. This technology collects over a

million data points to adapt and change the algorithms to match student learning paths. One of

the concerns is that the data is only adjusting algorithms of existing and standard pathways and

not truly adapting to the intricate differences in students (para. 19-20). Another concerning part

with adaptive technology is the invasion of students lives and personal information as their data

is used and stored without many of them being aware that it.


Overall, the defense of personalized learning is minimal and only has a few key points

focused around student control and achievement. The opposition brings claims against these

points and also brings up other arguments. Ideologically, personalized learning (providing

individualized instruction that recognizes student differences and abilities) is something that the

supporters and opponents all agree on, but the concept of handing the instruction over to

technology is where the break occurs. People are social beings and school is a social

environment, but personalized learning threatens that idea. Besides being invasive of student

and teacher information, technology is also unable to provide the same kind of differentiation,

attention, and quality feedback that teachers can. In the end, school should be an interactive,

engaging, and safe place to be and an overreliance on technology can rid it of its very heart.


Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C.W. (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive

innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hernandez, A. (2014, June 25). Personalize learning. Please. Retrieved from

Kohn, A. (2015, Feb 23). Four reasons to worry about personalized learning. Retrieved from

McRae, P. (2013, April 14). Rebirth of the teaching machine through the seduction of data

analytics: This time its personal. Retrieved from


Meyer, D. (2013, June 23). Dont Personalize Learning. Retrieved from

Newton, C. (2015). Can AI fix education? We ask Bill Gates: How personalized learning is

changing schools. Retrieved from


Riley, B. (2014a). Dont personalize learning. Retrieved from

Riley, B. (2014b). The ideology of personalization. Retrieved from

Watters, A. (2016, Dec 19). Education technology and the ideology of personalization. Retrieved


Watters, Audrey. (2014, Sept 11). The problem with personalization. Retrieved from