Not Personalization, Autonomy

Posted on May 21, 2012


I really wish people would stop talking about the personalization revolution in education, where technology will allow us to deliver a personalized learning plan for every student.

If you want true personalization you don’t need technology, you need autonomy.

The only truly personalized learning is one where the student decides what he or she is going to learn on their own.

Personalization through technology comes at a high price. It’s complex and expensive to create and deliver. You don’t need such a complicated solution to such an easy problem. Just let the students learn what they want to learn. Create an environment where certain learning is more accessible and engaging and let the students make their own decisions within that environment. You capture all of the benefits of personalized learning and autonomy without any of the added complexity or cost.

Already many school systems such as Montessori use this strategy to create personalized learning and they’ve been doing it for more than 100 years with great success, without the help of computers, software, the Internet, etc.

For most of history companies have been afraid to give their employees too much autonomy, certain that it would result in laziness and unproductive workers. In many situations, such as an assembly line, they were probably right, but in many modern day businesses where the  work itself is motivating, requiring creativity rather than simply repetition of a single task, autonomy has been shown to increase productivity as greater autonomy is motivating in itself. Still, though, many employers do not recognize the value of autonomy.

Similarly traditional schools do not seem to recognize the value of autonomy, but if we’re preparing students for a world that values creativity so highly then we’re doing them a great disservice if we never allow them to learn in an autonomous environment, allowing them to both benefit from the added motivation of autonomy as well as learn how to properly handle such decisions so that they don’t overreact the first time they are exposed to an autonomous environment.

At the end of the day I just wish the educational community would focus it’s attention more on how to create the best autonomous environments and less on technologically-enabled personalization. I think the benefits would be enormous, both from a cost/complexity perspective as well as a motivational/results perspective.