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After being declared “costly and unsustainable,” by University of Texas System Vice Chancellor Steve Leslie, the Institute for Transformational Learning shut down in late January.

Since its inception in 2012, the Institute spent $75 million out of the system’s Permanent University Fund[1] pursuing its goals of creating “digital learning tools like a platform for health education, online courses available to people around the world and an iPad app that would let students access course materials.” 

The goal was to create “products,” which could then be monetized, but according to Leslie, who took over oversight of the institute in 2015, “There was not the foundation of a business plan” at the institute’s inception. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the “Framework for Excellence” which midwifed the Institute was literally dreamed up in two days by Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and his advisors and passed by the regents “without asking a single question.”[2] 

Lots of money spent, nothing transformed, who knows what kinds of opportunities lost?


I wonder how many of you are familiar with the story of Amplify. It’s similar to the story of the Institute for Transformational Learning only it played out in the private sector and involved a couple of additional zeroes.[3]

Launched off of the acquisition of 90% of a company called Wireless Generation, (which was pioneering the use of education software on mobile devices), by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and overseen by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, the new NewsCorp subsidiary became Amplify in 2012 and set out to transform education by selling its own tablet hardware loaded with its proprietary software.

Long story short, it didn’t work. After a reported billion dollars sunk into the project, NewsCorp divested, leaving behind a company now run by Larry Berger, who had been co-founder of Wireless Generation, and now serves as CEO of the post-NewsCorp Amplify, which focuses on digital curriculum and assessment programs.

This makes Berger one of the longest tenured figures in all of what we now call “personalized learning.” In a recent “letter” addressed to a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss the state of personalized learning which Berger couldn’t personally attend, which was then published at the blog of AEI director of education policy Rick Hess, Berger offers a confession about personalized learning: 

It isn’t possible. At least not according to the “engineering model,” except in very limited contexts.

The engineering model goes like this:

1. Figure out what students need to learn. Berger calls this a “map.”

2. Figure out what students already know so you can place them on the map, “where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.”[4]

3. Assemble “learning objects” and task an algorithm with putting the proper object in front of a student at a given moment based on their position on the map.

4. Make student use learning object.

5. Measure what student has learned following encounter with object.

6. Re-orient student on the map. If they learned, they advance. If they didn’t “try something simpler.”

Berger believed, “If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.”

"Until a few years ago," Berger believed in the engineering model. But in his letter he says, “Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library."

He believes the assessments are bad at revealing what students know, “Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.”

Berger also now recognizes the role student motivation plays in the learning process, “Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.”

Larry Berger is by all-accounts a well-meaning person honestly dedicated to improving education.

And I do not mean to be unkind, but I am not sure where this faith in the engineering model of personalized learning could come from, or why someone could believe it to be possible beyond some limited applications?

With both the NewsCorp era Amplify, and the Institute for Transformational Learning, we see stories of tremendous wastes of time and money pursuing ill-conceived and even ill-defined fantasies. What did they really understand about the complexities of learning before launching into these experiments? What kinds of priorities drove the development of their products?

And more importantly, where was the consideration of students? If we want to find a source of failure for both projects, surely it’s in the failure to consider those who would actually be using their “products.” On second thought, maybe they don’t know as much about business as I think they do.[5]

I am not anti-innovation. I will be publishing two books which I hope will “innovate” how we approach the teaching of writing. I am a fan of initiatives such as HASTAC, co-founded by Cathy Davidson and currently housed at CUNY, which in practice operates as a community of scholars who are exploring issues of education and educational innovation.

They pilot, they share, they learn, they try again.[6] They directly fund researchers and students who need assistance. It is open and transparent.

There is no pursuit of a “product” to “transform” or monetize. There is only the process of learning. There are edtech groups doing this as well, but they don’t attract billion dollars of investment.

When the focus is on the process, even the failures are beneficial, rather than sunk costs, lost forever at the bottom of a balance sheet.

Hopefully, as we understand the overpromises and hype of MOOCs and personalized learning and other initiatives which pledge to transform education practically overnight, we can get to a much more rigorous, more rational, and less wasteful approach to pursuing innovation in education.


[1] A $19.5 billion pot of money funded through oil revenues. As reported by the Texas Tribune, $352 million was paid into the UT System the year the Institute was founded with a commitment to spend $100 million. 

[2] One of the causes of the Institute’s high expenses may be the staffing and salaries. As compiled by The Texas Tribune lat last year from publicly available data, the 31 employees had a median salary of $120,000.

[3] The story and background on Amplify comes from a chapter in Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions of Dollars in Education by Jonathan A. Knee, published in 2016.

[4] Maybe it’s worth noting how Berger’s own map analogy breaks down. He’s describing not a map, but a line. I think “map” is actually a closer metaphor for thinking about knowledge than “line,” but “ahead” and “behind” are not mapping terms. With maps, we are surrounded, and can move in a full 360 degrees. Perhaps this explains some of why personalized learning hasn’t worked. Where it has worked, in some relatively basic math applications, the learning process is obviously more linear.

[5] The disconnect here is rooted in the fact that the purchaser of the product and the user of the product are two different groups. Schools and school systems buy the software, almost always relaying on the hype/marketing pitch of the providers. This allows lots of edtech products to get a foot in the door, but when they rubber hits the road in schools and the shortcomings become manifest, disillusion sets in quickly. Too many commercial edtech products are designed to past muster with administrations and boards to make that sale, rather than being rooted in real student

[6] Not coincidentally, this is the same process by which I developed my books on writing.

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