The ever-relevant and compulsively-readable Ben Williamson turns his attention to ‘precision education’ in his latest post. It would seem that now that the phrase ‘personalised learning’ has jumped the proverbial shark, people are doubling down on the rather dangerous assumption that we just need more data to provide better learning experiences.

In some ways, precision education looks a lot like a raft of other personalized learning practices and platform developments that have taken shape over the past few years. Driven by developments in learning analytics and adaptive learning technologies, personalized learning has become the dominant focus of the educational technology industry and the main priority for philanthropic funders such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.


A particularly important aspect of precision education as it is being advocated by others, however, is its scientific basis. Whereas most personalized learning platforms tend to focus on analysing student progress and outcomes, precision education requires much more intimate data to be collected from students. Precision education represents a shift from the collection of assessment-type data about educational outcomes, to the generation of data about the intimate interior details of students’ genetic make-up, their psychological characteristics, and their neural functioning.

As Williamson points out, the collection of ‘intimate data’ is particularly concerning, particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

Many people will find the ideas behind precision education seriously concerning. For a start, there appear to be some alarming symmetries between the logics of targeted learning and targeted advertising that have generated heated public and media attention already in 2018. Data protection and privacy are obvious risks when data are collected about people’s private, intimate and interior lives, bodies and brains. The ethical stakes in using genetics, neural information and psychological profiles to target students with differentiated learning inputs are significant.

There’s a very definite worldview which presupposes that we just need to throw more technology at a problem until it goes away. That may be true in some situations, but at what cost? And to what extent is the outcome an artefact of the constraints of the technologies? Hopefully my own kids will be finished school before this kind of nonsense becomes mainstream. I do, however, worry about my grandchildren.

The technical machinery alone required for precision education would be vast. It would have to include neurotechnologies for gathering brain data, such as neuroheadsets for EEG monitoring. It would require new kinds of tests, such as those of personality and noncognitive skills, as well as real-time analytics programs of the kind promoted by personalized-learning enthusiasts. Gathering intimate data might also require genetics testing technologies, and perhaps wearable-enhanced learning devices for capturing real-time data from students’ bodies as proxy psychometric measures of their responses to learning inputs and materials.

Thankfully, Williamson cites the work of academics who are proposing a different way forward. Something that respects the social aspect of learning rather than a reductionist view that focuses on inputs and outputs.

One productive way forward might be to approach precision education from a ‘biosocial’ perspective. As Deborah Youdell  argues, learning may be best understood as the result of ‘social and biological entanglements.’ She advocates collaborative, inter-disciplinary research across social and biological sciences to understand learning processes as the dynamic outcomes of biological, genetic and neural factors combined with socially and culturally embedded interactions and meaning-making processes. A variety of biological and neuroscientific ideas are being developed in education, too, making policy and practice more bio-inspired.

The trouble is, of course, is that it’s not enough for academics to write papers about things. Or even journalists to write newspaper articles. Even with all of the firestorm over Facebook recently, people are still using the platform. If the advocates of ‘precision education’  have their way, I wonder who will actually create something meaningful that opposes their technocratic worldview?

Source: Code Acts in Education