When Personalization Goes Bad

Posted by Michael Simkins on January 12, 2014

BubbleWe educators talk a lot about personalization.  My dear friend Barbara Bray is a tireless advocate for personalizing learning environments. Goodness knows we’re all very busy building and maintaining our personal learning networks.  In 1996, when I left my job as a principal to direct a federal technology project, a reporter interviewing me for the local newspaper asked me what I thought the value of technology was for education; I answered, “It’s going to enable us to personalize learning.”

As with many good things, though, there are malignant forms of personalization—insidious strains that surreptitiously undermine our ability to freely learn what we want to learn.   Barbara calls out “adaptive learning systems” as one example.  “The filter bubble,” as described by Eli Pariser, is another. A couple months ago I read his book of the same name.  Until then, I’d thought I was a pretty savvy guy about all things Internet, but Eli’s book poked a hole in my own naiveté bubble.

I consider myself to be a pretty damn good researcher.  Even before the Internet, I could walk into a library, pull out the card catalog or the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, and usually find out what I wanted to know. When the Internet came along, I mastered Boolean expressions and entered researchers’ paradise.  The only information I had trouble finding was information that hadn’t yet be digitized.

Then “smart” searching came along.  At first, this seemed great.  Start typing a couple words in the search box and voilà! Google or Bing or whatever tool you’re using just “knows” what you’re looking for. Over time, though, I found myself having trouble finding what I wanted.  I’d change my search terms all kinds of ways and I’d still get the same off-base results.  It’s like trying to explain something to someone who just doesn’t have the knowledge or context to “get it.” Like Big Brother or JIm Anderson, Algorithm knows best.  Ask for whatever you will, Knowledge Graph decides what you really need.  Not good.  In fact, creepy.

Watch this TED Talk.  Eli explains it better than I.

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Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins is Consulting Director of TICAL -- the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership. Prior to that he was director of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project and also served as COO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He was an elementary schoolteacher for 17 years and an elementary principal for 9 years. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, when it was still a "sleepy beach town."

One thought on “When Personalization Goes Bad”

  1. Provocative. Will we always have to look behind the “Oz” curtain to vet the “truth?”
    When does customization become censorship?
    Must I create another internet “me” to accomplish unbiased research? Lord knows I have too many email addresses as it is.

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