What WALL-E Teaches Us About Adaptive and Personalized Learning (David Wiley)

David Wiley (@opencontent) is co-founder and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning. This post appeared in EdSurge February 24, 2016.


One hundred years from now, Earth is an epic wasteland of French fry containers, water bottles and other remnants of mankind’s consumerism. Humans have evacuated on a starship, leaving behind an army of robots to clean up the planet.

So goes the plot of WALL-E, a lighthearted, animated film set in a post-apocalyptic future. While much of the movie’s screen time is dedicated to the exploits of our rusty bot hero, the film also makes some gentle commentary on the impact that living with advanced technology for centuries might have on people.

The starship that humans call home has fully automated systems designed to provide for all their needs—food, drinks, entertainment and even transportation around the intergalactic spacecraft. Although exercise is critically important for people in space to prevent bone loss and other deleterious effects of weightlessness, the humans are moved about by intelligent hovering chairs. They get even less exercise than their Earth-bound ancestors and the effect is, in a word, flab-bergasting.

Just at the moment when exercise is more important than ever, AI has stepped in to prevent the human characters from engaging in it. This sentence, perhaps more than any other, sums up my concerns about adaptive and personalized learning as currently imagined in today’s mainstream edtech marketplace.

Learning on Autopilot

Our world is awash in information. There is some disagreement over the exact amount, but reasonable estimates state that humanity records and transmits a little over three exabytes of information every day. Now, more than ever before, people are desperately in need of skills that will help them determine what is worthy of their attention, and how to effectively study and learn over their lifetime in this increasingly ill-structured and information-rich environment.

Yet what is the primary purpose of most adaptive or personalized learning systems? To eliminate the complexity of deciding what to study, how to study or how long to study. The highest aspiration of these systems seems to be automatically selecting, sequencing and presenting just the right information for the learner at just the right time. All the learner needs to do is sit back and click “Next”—no judgment or thinking required.

Some will no doubt argue that the brainpower students spend trying to decide what to study or how to study represents “extraneous cognitive load” that prevents students from giving their full attention to biology or economics, and that this distraction will manifest itself in assessments as “construct irrelevant variance”—irrelevant variables that affect results. And from the narrow perspective of the discipline, that may be true.

However, now more than ever students need explicit support developing the skills that will allow them to successfully navigate—rather than drown in—the ocean of information that awaits them post-graduation. When faculty choose to let adaptive or personalized systems make these choices on behalf of students, we are complicit in the atrophy of these critically important skills in our students. No wonder so many adaptive platform websites feature student quotes saying, “I wish all my teachers used [insert product name here]!” Prolonged exposure to these systems makes traditional studying increasingly difficult for students as their study skills slowly fade away.

From Automation to Empowerment

This is not a Luddite, anti-edtech rant. I firmly believe there is an important role for technology to play in enabling more adaptive and personalized experiences for students. But rather than designing learning technologies that actively deskill students, adaptive and personalized providers should look for ways to use technology to support students in the development of their agency, metacognition and learning-to-learn skills. Rather than making complicated decisions on behalf of students in a black box, these systems should surface their data and support students in evaluating them and making their own decisions about what and how to study.

These criticisms generally apply to the faculty context as well. Take the above paragraphs and replace “student” and “learning” with “teacher” and “teaching,” and the logic largely holds. Adaptive and personalized systems appear to be actively deskilling faculty as well, attempting to replace them rather than augment them. There are tremendous opportunities for these technologies to empower teachers, broaden their agency and improve their teaching skills. Oddly enough, at the same time they deskill faculty, these systems also make unrealistic skills demands on them by presenting them with data dashboards that are only valuable for faculty who—in addition to their disciplinary knowledge—also have graduate degrees in data science and instructional design.

In the long run, the true power of adaptive and personalized systems will only be realized when they are designed to simultaneously support student learning in the discipline and increase human agency, giving students and faculty the chance to develop their metacognitive and pedagogical skills rather than contributing to their slow demise. I’m looking forward to that future.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

6 responses to “What WALL-E Teaches Us About Adaptive and Personalized Learning (David Wiley)

  1. Alice in PA

    This post confuses me. I must be missing something.
    While I agree with the criticisms about personalized learning package, I am very confused about the proposed solutions to these criticisms.

    For example: “adaptive and personalized providers should look for ways to use technology to support students in the development of their agency, metacognition and learning-to-learn skills” and “There are tremendous opportunities for these technologies to empower teachers, broaden their agency and improve their teaching skills.”

    How is these goals accomplished? The Lumen idea seems to be reducing the cost of textbooks on college by providing online versions with hints that there is more to the Lumen system. I looked at the sample physics course and saw a traditional representation of the material with some additional videos.

    Could it be the university professors learning some pedagogy, and not the technology, that is causing the success espoused on the website? In my experience, College of Education faculty are not seen as resources to improve college teaching but outside experts often are influential even when they say the same things as the Education faculty. Maybe the technology is a vehicle for faculty learning to be better teachers by promoting knowledge construction rather than assuming a passive learning model.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    “Oddly enough, at the same time they deskill faculty, these systems also make unrealistic skills demands on them by presenting them with data dashboards that are only valuable for faculty who—in addition to their disciplinary knowledge—also have graduate degrees in data science and instructional design.”

    Not just college faculty.

    Here I discuss a data dashboard that I tripped upon for 10 districts in California serving 11 million students. The dashboard in part of the “School Quality Improvement System,” in the process of being launched under the auspices of CORE: California Office to Reform Education (CORE) with start up funding from California Education Partners.

    CORE has no authority to address accountability issues in California other than helping to secure a 2013 federal waiver of NCLB in favor of a “collaborative effort” called the “CORE School Quality Improvement System.” (That waiver will expire just as this data-mongering program takes off).

    CORE is portrayed as an initiative “led by ten District Superintendents, other experts in their districts, with input from hundreds of educators across the CORE districts. The collaboration extends to: (a) support from our key partners Stanford University, Harvard University and (b) guidance from our Oversight Panel which includes The Association of California School Administrators, California School Boards Association, Ed Trust West, Policy Analysis for California Education, and California State PTA.“

    This “School Quality Improvement System” and “Index” produces ratings of schools that are not only complex–almost everything on a ten point scale– but also fed directly to greatschools.org funded by the Gates, Walton, Robertson, and Arnold Foundations (logos displayed) and 19 others (standard type) including the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Bradley Foundation, Goldman Sachs Gives, New Schools Venture Fund. The data package includes–but is not limited to–California’s official accountability measures for schools.

    I have concluded that greatschools.org is designed to aid and abet the red-lining of real-estate and steer families to specific schools via a tiered system of money-making ads, licenses, partnerships and other and liaisons with producers of surveys, “research” and communications (Peter Cunningham and Eric Hanushek on the Board of Directors).

    Back to the data dashboard and School Quality Improvement System. It is a version of AYP on steroids. You can see one version here http://coredistricts.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Index-Thresholds_1.27.16.pdf

    A full description is here, with mystifying colored linear regressions and charts with arrows, along with the extra costs for gathering, analyzing, and formatting information gained from schools and districts for this “data collaborative.” http://coredistricts.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/CORE-Data-Collaborative-v3-1-21-16.pdf

    The end game is a school report on “quality’ and “improvement” that aspires to be a national model. But the school quality ratings are really not much more than a trap for unsuspecting persons who gets booted to the great schools.org website for some heavy duty marketing.

    Start here http://coredistricts.org/indexreports/ .
    Click to see a school report. Try to make sense of it….then look at your browser to see t the source of the report information. It is great schools.org, not the school district and not the State of California.

    Poke around the great schools website to see how a non-profit can operate as a for-profit that also serves the education industries of real estate, charter schools, tests and textbooks. See how this website captures media outlets as “partners,” entire school districts into partnerships, even coopts the US Department of Housing and Urban Development plus Fannie Mae via pay-to-play licenses.

    Notice how greatschools.org has placed many highly respected scholars on the Advisory Board, enticing them into this nasty bait-and-switch business— all represented as if relevant to “school quality.” The real estate partnerships and tiers of licensing rights function as blunt and blatant instruments for red-lining and the “local” package licensing fees include a way to steer people to specific schools (without seeming to).

    I fell into this snake-pit by way of a NY Times article featuring the latest Broad Superintendent enlisted for Oakland schools, who is on the board of directors for CORE initiatives.

    • larrycuban

      I met Bill Jackson the founder of GreatSchools just after he started the organization. I thought then–mid-1990s, as I recall–that the service he would provide would be helpful to parents and educators. Now, I had read about the CORE approach in a few articles and how it was having multiple indicators to move away from the API, one number, display. But I had not known about the linkage between CORE and GreatSchools nor did I know very much about some of the issues you raised, Laura. I will look at links that you sent along. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Learning and knowledge: Ubiquitous computing!. – juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

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