Is Radical Personalization Antithetical to Sustained Interactions With Others?

One of the more exciting developments at my university is the ongoing development of our new Mathematical Sciences Learning Laboratory (MSLL). Pronounced “missile” and the already the cause of many puns (e.g., the opening of the new lab is already being dubbed “the missile launch”), it’s a space that is “intended to serve students entering our foundational mathematics sequence, in particular, courses below the calculus level.”  It seems to draw part of its inspiration from the math emporium model which, in its most radical form, allows students to progress through lower-level math courses completely on their own pace because the material is completely personalized to each student.  Our colleagues in the local community college system, for example, allow students to progress through as many as three courses in one semester if the student is focused enough to quickly progress through and demonstrate mastery of all of the topics in those courses.

That kind of model, one which draws to mind rows of students sitting at computers with headphones on or in disparate, dispersed locations on their individually-owned computers, is what I think of when I think about the potential for modern technology to allow completely personalized coursework. There is some appeal to me because it’s easy to see how this model can enable students to complete coursework in a much faster and therefore cost-efficient manner.  For the sake of argument, I will also stipulate that the manner in which students are required to demonstrate mastery of the content is high quality – reliable, valid, realistic, etc.

So I get that we can make clever use of technology to make some topics (previously known as “courses”) completely individualized and adapted to the pace and needs of each student.  I also get how that this can help students demonstrate their mastery (previously known as “take and pass courses”) much more quickly and perhaps even with increased learning (which historically has *not* been the case with technology-enhanced courses).  But what I don’t get is if everyone is moving at their own pace and their work is completely individualized how do we incorporate things like meaningful, sustained peer interaction?  Is personalized instruction inherently antithetical to things like substantive collaboration?  Where in personalized education is there room for sustained exposure to diversity and integration with other coursework?  I raise these questions because these are important parts of activities we know to be particularly effective.

Am I missing something or misunderstanding the nature of personalized and individualized coursework?  If not, is it a model that we really want to use for an entire degree program?

(I owe some of my thinking on this topic to my colleague John Jungck who has been very persuasive in his arguments against instructional models that don’t facilitate meaningful collaboration. His concerns that such models may not allow students to experience and understand much of the power and beauty of mathematics are well-articulated and convincing, at least for me.)






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