Fifth graders working in a math class at AltSchool Yerba Buena. 
Fifth graders working in a math class at AltSchool Yerba Buena.  - 
Listen To The Story

From targeted content to Facebook ads, we've all experienced personalization on the web — and now tech companies are offering similar technology in schools. Software designers say it can help kids learn at their own pace. But it’s not yet clear whether personalized tech will help students.

At AltSchool, a Bay Area, California-based network of private schools, the classroom might sound like an educator's dream: Students as young as 10 work quietly on subjects like subtraction. They have their lessons and goals tailored to their individual needs with the help of software. Eleven-year-old Myles Gardiner reads his individual goals from the system:  “I will improve my writing by using more advanced vocabulary, writing with detail and description.”  

AltSchool runs a number of schools in California and New York, where tuition runs $20,000 or more. The company is developing software that can replicate these classes in public and private schools around the country. 

The software helps track student data and logs work. For example, to improve Myles' writing, his teachers might assign more vocabulary exercises for him. They would then track his progress and mark a goal as completed when Myles demonstrates proficiency.

“The big goal is to empower students to drive their own learning, and to do that requires some pretty significant shifts in education, away from a one-size-fits-all to a truly personalized experience for each and every learner,” explained Devin Vodicka, the chief impact officer at AltSchool who helps design its curriculum.

Personalized learning isn’t new — the idea of trying to teach students individually is something that’s been around for decades. But the software can make personalization less cumbersome.

“The platform makes it easier to personalize because it puts everything into one place. [Teachers] can track student progress, and they can share with families without having to cobble together different technologies,” said Emily Dahm, a former teacher at AltSchool and now head of its Yerba Buena location.

AltSchool isn’t alone in doing this. Other companies are also creating and distributing the educational software, some with big tech backers like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week estimates the booming education tech industry, including hardware and software, is worth about $8 billion  a year, and much of that is devoted to personalized learning.  However, the think tank RAND Corporation studied the technology, and said it could not draw a causal relationship between personalized learning programs and improved student test scores.

And some teachers also question how helpful the software is. Julian Cortella is a teacher who formerly taught at Summit, a school in Redwood City, California that developed a personalized learning program with the help of Facebook engineers. Cortella said he doubts that software can truly serve kids’ individual learning needs.

“It takes not only a lot of training, it takes a lot of hard work and it really takes a master curriculum planner, developer,” he said. He added that he thinks the technology “still has a long way to go.”

Now, AltSchool is looking to close some of its lab schools to focus on distributing and marketing its platform. But Benjamin Herold, a reporter with Education Week who covers the personalized learning industry, said educators should approach the technology with caution.

“Certainly there’s a vested interest for some of the large companies to have their technologies sold and used in schools, and they’re pushing that very hard without a whole lot of evidence that they’re improving education,” he said.

Today, many school districts across the country are using some kind of personalized learning software. And AltSchool will be testing its software in public schools in California next year, in the Arcadia Unified and Menlo Park school districts.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.