Individual learning pathways,

21st century skills,

Embracing the whole child;

These empowering phrases are being used to sell the public on a technology-centric, radical redesign of public education. Why? So our students will be able to keep pace in the highly competitive global economy.

David Coleman, father of the common core standards, let slip a rare insight into the real role individual students are to play in the new personalized education landscape of college and career readiness. Coleman’s statement was in response to the common core writing standards’ emphasis of analysis over opinion writing.

“As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s— about what you feel or what you think,” he said. “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’”

Forgive me, but workers bowing their heads and biting their tongues before the boss, who doesn’t give a shit about what they think or feel, sounds more like a 18th century skill to me – going back to the industrial revolution and persisting today in almost every workplace in the United States.

Personalized Pathways: Empowering or a Re-Branded Subjugation?

Katherine Prince of KnowledgeWorks, had this to say about the radical personalization of education:

Not only will schools take many forms but teachers will be those in the classroom and beyond. Prince calls these “learning agents” and they include developers and technology experts who will help create technologies that can measure learning and help teachers know when students understand what is being taught and when more instruction is needed. A blend of online learning and classroom instruction could be part of the redesign as it now being put in place in a growing number of universities.

Students also need to be prepared for the reality that full-time employment will continue to decline and workers will increasingly be hired for short-term jobs. Students need to be prepared for “mosaic careers,” Prince says.

The key skills they will need for future employment will be the ability to embrace change, appreciation of experimentation, problem solving and the ability to quickly analyze information. Young people must be trained to expect continuous learning and manage disruptions.

Wait, what?

Students need to be prepared for short-term jobs and not expect full-time employment. How empowering is that?  Sounds like the goal of this radical re-imagining of education is to produce workers willing to eek out a precarious existence in the gig economy.

The Global Education Futures: Agenda GEF.Agenda_eng ( pages 12 ) gets even more to the point: education has to be re-structured to support a jobless economy and provide an avenue to ease social tension caused by this mass financial hardship.

The transformation of economy structure inevitably changes the structure of employment. In coming years, automation of manual and intellectual routine labor will lead to substantial job reduction — which may increase social tension unless displaced workers can acquire new skills and enter job markets in new sectors. Education may serve as a social buffer that helps this shift — and educational institutions should proactively prepare for the coming transformation.

If workers are the losers, there must be someone benefiting from the new economy. Again from the GEF Report ( page 25).

Besides that, a new and extremely important trend in education is the emerging opportunity of direct talent investment (e.g. a recent crowdinvesting platform Upstart allows to invest up to US$ 200,000 into a talented young person who then shares a small share of their income over 5 or 10 years). This model has for a long time been employed in athlete and actor job markets, but it can soon become a mass solution as big data models of competence profiles would allow to estimate the most beneficial educational & career tracks. The beginning of 2020s may see the emergence of first ‘man-llionaires’ — owners of investment portfolios, made solely of talented people investments, that worth more than one billion dollars. Later, the same model of direct talent investment could be applied by pension funds — in fact, it can be described as a modified version of Bismarckian pension system where highly performing youth would work in the interest of retired investors.

The rising demand for personalized education from employers and investors will spur the development of personal education management systems (and respective market infrastructure). In particular, we expect the standardization of descriptors defining the contribution of specific courses and other educational products (e.g. games & simulators) to the competence profile (much like ‘nutritional facts’ on food products packaging). We also expect that within next 2-3 years a fully functional search engine for educational online services will appear, most likely as a search option within major search engines such as Google, Baidu, or Yandex. In addition to that, it is highly probable that specialized educational content aggregators will offer ‘branded’ educational tracks: a path to create a target competence profile, e.g. an average profile of a skilled industry professional or a profile of a ‘hero’ such as an industry leader (e.g. Bill Gates or Jack Welch). These ‘branded’ tracks will gradually develop into 24/7 (artificial intelligence) virtual instructors that could make flexible adjustments to the educational trajectory to adapt it to the current results, objectives, and body-and-mind state of the student.

Lots to discuss here.

First, who benefits from this education re-design? Investors, for one, and the ‘man-llionaires’ who will own portfolios of talented people and get a cut of their holdings’ earnings for the next 5-10 years.

Of course, whoever wins out and becomes the most popular platform delivery system for connecting workers to gigs will profit greatly as well.

And how is a branded learning track possibly personalized?

Selling kids the online Bill Gates “hero” learning pathway, complete with an AI virtual instructor, symbolizes for me all that’s wrong with personalized learning.


Luckily, the dystopian future of personalized learning pathways isn’t set in stone. Even GEF admits it (page 8).


The future can be created, it depends on our efforts;

There are many possible futures — it is not determined by the past, but depends on current decisions taken by participants and stakeholders;

There are areas in relation to which one can make predictions, but in general, the future is not reliably predictable; we can get ready for the future or prepare the future the way we envision it to be.

As concerned parents, educators, and citizens, we need to reject personalized learning pathways and the rise of the gig economy. There’s many possible futures, time to start creating the one we want to live in.

-Carolyn Leith