Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, celebrated the birth of their daughter by announcing they would invest nearly their entire fortune in good causes, with personalized learning topping the list. While certainly a magnanimous gesture, there is one small problem: There’s little evidence that technology by itself can replace good schools.
Studies have shown that creating personalized learning tools that allow students to learn at their own pace, provide constant feedback, and recommend lessons based on previous work can produce improvement in learning results. But students still need support from teachers and parents.
Jason Reich, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported in a paper published in Science that 38% of students enrolled in online courses from Harvard and MIT live in more affluent neighborhoods. Reich also found students with college-educated parents were nearly twice as likely to finish the online courses they take.
“The history of education technology shows emerging technologies tend to disproportionately benefit affluent people,” Reich said in a National Public Radio report. “Designing for digital equity is really hard.”
The good news is Zuckerberg has shown a willingness to do the hard work necessary. Facebook engineers are already working on a personalized learning platform with Summit Schools, a chain of technology-centered charter schools. In addition, Zuckerberg has invested in AltSchool, a Bay Area startup that blends Montessori educational concepts with high-tech tools. He also plans to build free-standing private schools for low-income students.
“The technology is important, but it’s not really the hard or the expensive part,” said Michael Feldstein, co-founder of the education blog e-Literate, in the NPR report. “These challenges are particularly hard for poorer schools where there is less money and less support for teachers.”