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Personalized Learning Won’t Be So Easy: Thoughts on the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative

Chan-Zukerberg - TecherCast Guest Blog

Perhaps I’m a little jaded, but when I read about Mark Zuckerberg’s and Priscilla Chan’s letter to their daughter which stated that technology would create a world where personalized learning was available to everyone, I thought: “No it won’t.”

Their ambitions are great, perhaps noble. The letter states that the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative that has been created as a result will work for the next handful of decades to “better human potential,” and one way is through advances in educational technology. We have, in fact, come a long way. We now have higher education that is entirely online. I recently completed a Masters degree while working full-time and taking a full load because online learning is so flexible.

Yet having attempted to integrate personalized learning through ed-tech in my own classrooms, more than a decade before Chan and Zuckerberg made this momentous announcement, I know that it’s not going to be easy in K-12 classrooms. The plan loosely outlined in the open letter is going to be thrown out the window.

E-Reader Hell in a Rural Setting

I taught for a year in a very small school. The needs of the students were thus that adaptive learning which has been described in the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative was warranted. No Child Left Behind had just been signed into law a year before, and the school was learning how to properly allocate its resources.

Because of these resources, each classroom was outfitted with a full set of laptops. At the time, they were better than the one I’d brought with me. Many of my students struggled with reading, so I took it upon myself to use Microsoft Reader in the early 00s to introduce a whole new concept to my students: personalized learning. They had never marked up a book in their lives, unless it was to spite a teacher or parent.

Yet I was able to teach them text annotation in order to improve their reading comprehension. Unfortunately, they only did this when they were in the classroom. The skill didn’t transfer over to their reading at home. Why? Because there was no community buy-in. The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative wants to start building its community in San Francisco, a community of around 850,000 people. I was in one of less than 500. Community buy-in should have been a breeze.

Doing It Right

Why didn’t the community buy into my attempts to personalize learning through ed-tech? Because it thought I was being a lazy teacher. When a parent or guardian peeks through a classroom window and sees a room full of students plugged into computers, they don’t see learning. Just like the smartboard trend, it appears one-directional and not interactive.

Adaptive learning technologies have been proved to not work. I taught a course in a high school that was focused solely on learning how to take the state standardized test. It did not adapt to the students.

Instead, were I Chan and Zuckerberg, I would encourage project-based learning that integrates technology. The personalization will come naturally as our world evolves. Zuckerberg and Chan are correct when they write that technology will be global. It already is.

Let technology naturally personalize education. Don’t force it. Most ed-tech experts agree that personalized learning has a long way to go before it could do what Chan and Zuckerberg envision. I would argue that personalized learning should be left to a collaboration among teachers and their students, not students and a piece of technology.


Hattie James is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho. She has a varied background, including education and sports journalism. She is a former electronic content manager and analyst for a government agency. She recently completed her MBA and enjoys local ciders.

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