Review: “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning”

Christopher Nelson_Review #1


Christopher S. Nelson

University of Alaska Fairbanks





Review: “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning”


For the past few years, a growing number of school districts have been moving forward with personalized learning education models, stoked with excitement and newfound drive; however, not everyone has bought into the idea of letting students customize their own personal education process. This holds especially true for high schools. In his Education Week article, “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning,” Benjamin Herold (2017) uses three prominent arguments against this new methodology. He first points out the bandwagon hype surrounding personalized learning and how it lacks fact-based support. His second argument explains the problematic issues predicted to plague both students and teachers as they step into a new realm of pedagogy in which the student drives the lesson plan. However,  Herold’s third and strongest argument brings home his greatest concern: Major tech players are backing personalized learning despite the questionable ethics of these financiers and developers. While his arguments are sensible and offer valuable insight to the debate of personalized learning– especially as it applies to the inherent dangers of computer technology in the classroom–the article has flaws of its own which weaken the stance to some degree by way of fragile arguments.

As a student teacher exposed to a department of seasoned educators with over 130 years of combined experience, I hear their thoughts and concerns over personalized learning often. I agree with Mr. Herold, “The biggest [challenge] is lack of clarity around what the term actually means” (Harold, 2017). He does a thorough job of explaining the problem and defining why the term is so difficult to nail down to a simple methodological directive. I have experienced Herold’s sentiment that personalized learning has become “a blank slate…to describe everything from supplemental software programs to whole-school redesign “(Herold, 2018). From a review perspective, this also provides a smooth segue into the first argument of hype and bandwagon mentality. However, as Herold investigates this first argument he offers only paraphrased quotations from both sides with no backing data or facts. This sets the tone for the rest of the article: well-thought concern with little by way of supporting evidence.

The second argument, that personalized learning is bad for both students and teachers, starts in a strong direction by explaining the foundation of the concept—every child is not the same and each child learns differently—and reveals the biggest proponents are Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley. However, the section soon loses ground by loosely quoting proponents from both sides, again without backing evidence in hard data. At this point, the article, while giving great insight on the perils we are about to face with this breakthrough methodology, feels more like propaganda. It is truly a shame as these arguments are excellent reasons for us to listen to the voices of experienced educators shying away from personalized learning.

In the final argument, Herold makes his true concern very clear: big business controlling education. The greatest peril of buying into personalized learning is not so much the issue of understaffed schools (true personalized learning requires a much smaller student-to-teacher ratio, hence more teachers are needed)  but the dangerous game education is playing by slipping into bed with big names in the tech and social media industries. The big jump scare comes when Herold rolls out the billions of dollars pledged toward personalized learning by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook creator with a track record of less-than-desirable ethics by way of his company’s behavior. Here, Herold does an upstanding job of firing quotes from each side of the battlefield, and he truly paints a picture that supports his argument. However, once more he fails to supply anything other than words. There are no solid facts to support the quoted speakers or the ideas, no real dollar figures or statistics.

On a personal note, I agree with Herold. We are facing a great danger by letting the commercial tech industry become a stake holder in the future of education. I also agree that districts are pushing school administrators to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid, while many concerned teachers within those schools are shying away from personalized learning. These teachers have seen this same cycle of new ideas time after time, few of which last. Looking back across the last twenty-years alone, No Child Left Behind started a parade of new ideas borne from a one-size doesn’t fit all mentality, and yet here we are trying to make each new shiny education idea apply to every school district… and every teacher. As far as “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning,” it would have been a fantastic combat multiplier for those of us who would like our districts to use shrewd discernment before embracing personalized learning, but it falls short in terms of solid supporting evidence, making it just one more pseudo-opinion piece in Education Week magazine’s volumes.





Herold, B. (2018, June 20). The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning. Retrieved September 12, 2018,



3 thoughts on “Review: “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning”

  • Deana Waters

    Hi Chris,
    I see you are still grappling with personalized learning. Your review clearly points out the weaknesses of Herold’s paper. What is the solution, though? What kind of research is need to develop an universally accepted definition of “personalized learning”? How will fact-backed evidence convince administrators it’s a bad idea or teachers that it’s a good idea?

    I don’t think personalized learning is an all-or-nothing, sink-or-swim idea. Personalized learning can be incorporated incrementally into the curriculum. Homeschooling is a great example of personalized learning. Parent/teachers and students select resources based on student interest (and parent knowledge), assessments can be written, oral, video or even mimed, and best of all, knowledge from across the curriculum can be incorporated into one subject. I home schooled my daughters for their junior and senior years in high school. In a world history class with my youngest daughter, we had to “personalize” the course because she struggled with pen-and-paper testing. So we used verbal quizzes and discussion for the textbook content. To enhance the text, she studied music from different world regions and learned new violin pieces, which tied into her music class. We incorporated learning about and cooking foods from world regions, which also satisfied her Life Skills class. My point is learning can be personalized through little changes. Elementary and secondary students don’t need (and shouldn’t have) carte blanche to pick and choose what work they will do.

    • Christopher S Nelson


      This may be a repeat. I can’t see my comments when I leave them and am not sure they are actually posting. I agree with you that PL can be useful in the classroom in small doses, and I am very interested in some of the techniques such as the playlist. I am not sure the district here has really thought it though, however; this big push to turn the high school curriculum into a PL based structure is not going to work unless we hire a lot more teachers. The ratio needs to be closer to 5:1 and right now in my class alone we have a an average of 26:1 (I don’t count because student teachers aren’t considered real people). I also think some schools are buying into it for the access to ChromeBooks as much as the interest in PL, which is a good thing.

  • Owen Guthrie

    Great points, Deana. It isn’t all or nothing because the term itself is too comprehensive. It is used to incorporate some very good pedagogical practices, but it can also be used to represent some of the worst.

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