Post Cookie Cutter Education: The What & Why of Personalized Learning

What is personalized learning? Ask a dozen people and get a half dozen answers. We have several terms that many use interchangeably today; terms like individualized instruction, customized learning, differentiated instruction, learner-centerness, and personalized learning. While purists will argue for clear distinctions among these terms, we don’t always find that in the wild. People use the terms with different definitions in mind and, over time, we get several working definitions for each. With that said, I contend that personalized learning is among the broadest in the sense that it merges all the other terms. Personalized learning involves customizing what to learn, how to learn it, at what pace to learn it, where to learn, even why to learn something. It also includes opportunity for the learners to have significant input on each of these items. In other words, who is personalizing the learning is part of the personalization as well. Let’s go through each of these one at a time.

What is learned?

When we look at other terms like differentiated instruction, there is a personalization of how things are learned and how things are assessed. However, the outcomes or goals are usually the same for all learners in a given class. A fully personalized experience also  personalizes what to learned. One student might puruse a completely different learning goal from another.

The limitation here is that most schools decide that there are certain shared goals or outcomes, things that should be learned by all students.

How is it learned?

There is more than one way to learn something, and a personalized learning approach emphasizes this reality. As such, the “how” of learning might take into account a given learner’s background knowledge and experience, motivation, available resources and other elements.

While some use the personalized “how” to explore each student’s learning styles, I’m skeptical that this is a good use of time and energy, and the research doesn’t back up the hype about learning styles over the past couple of decades. At the same time, there seems to be support that certain strategies or methods work well to master certain skills. For example, while there might be some adjustments to the “how” of riding a bike, every “how” will involve some measure of practice on an actual bike. Within that general practice, there is still plenty of room for personalized approaches.

At what pace is it learned?

Most schools are notoriously bad at personalizing in this area. If someone doesn’t go at a “standard” pace or the pace determined by the teacher, school, or curriculum; then the student is “behind” or “ahead.” Yet, the pace at which someone proceeds toward mastery in a given domain varies widely from one person to another, and personalized pacing gets at this fact in a way that doesn’t penalize people for needing more or less time.

While many schools and educators aspire to personalize pace, and they are doing so with a myriad of strategies; traditional grade levels, semester schedules and other parts of many schools limit the extent to which pace can be personalized in those contexts. Even within some of those limitations, a growing number of teachers are embracing the opportunity to honor the differences among learners with regard to pace, and new adaptive learning software is helping people consider such possibilities.

Where is it learned?

This is not one that many focus upon when you read about personalized learning, but even the location of the learning can be personalized. In some cases, it is an extension of the personalized how. One might spend time in the library, while another conducts interviews or observations in the community, another is learning through a service learning activity, and yet another is learning through blended or online communities and experiences. The where of learning allows us to consider location limitations of a given learner but also locations or contexts that will best help a learner meet a given goal.

Why is it learned?

This is another one that isn’t talked about as much when we think of personalized learning, but motivation is such a critical part of effective learning. If a person has a compelling why for learning something then that is a huge step in the right direction, one large enough to overcome otherwise underwhelming learning contexts. As such, even more traditional contexts can invite or help students come up with a personalized why for what they are learning. The same why doesn’t work for everyone. For some, a good why is because the teacher said so. For another, it is about getting a certain grade. Far more compelling whys relate to how it will help one achieve a personal goal, how it resonates with a personal passion or interest, how it meets an important need in the world, or how it connects with one’s personal values, beliefs or convictions.

Who does the personalizing?

While there are contexts where the teacher does the personalizing to the learner, there is also the powerful possibility of engaging the learner in designing the learning experience. As such, the learner might collaborate with the teacher and others to decide what to learn, how to learn it, why to learn it, and where to learn it. In other settings, the learner is equipped and unleashed to direct much of this process with different measures of coaching or guidance from another.

Why personalized learning?

Given these descriptions of personalized learning, this leads us to also consider whether there is a compelling why. Why this shift in educational practice? Some argue that it is little more than a sign of an increasingly self-centered society. Others say it is yet another fad, soon to fade. Still others of us look at personalized learning differently. Personalized learning is an opportunity to recognize, honor, and take into account the distinct gifts, talents, abilities and passions of learners. It is an approach that invites the learner to take greater ownership in the learning process, to become independent and increasingly self-directed learners. Increased attention to this approach certainly has larger cultural influences, but it is also a natural development of new discoveries about how people learn. Just as personalized medicine is growing from new knowledge of human genetics, personalized learning comes from a growing recognition that there are countless distinct and unique elements to each person. As such, the why of personalized learning is connected to both scientific discoveries about human learning, as well as a growing post-industrial philosophy of education. Such a philosophy seeks to affirm and amplify the unique contributions of each person instead of creating an assembly line that produces a uniform end product.

5 Reasons for Blended Learning: Clarifying the Why

I’m leading a 4-week mini-MOOC on Adventures in Blended Learning from January 5 – 30 (by the way, all are welcome to participate in part or all of the experiences). While signing up is already already indication that those people have interest in understanding and maybe trying to intentionally design blended learning experiences, I am compelled to start with an exploration of the compelling “why” about blended learning. Without the why, too many things can go awry and a sense of relevance about “what” we are learning is more likely to die. As I explained in a recent article, integrating technology in and of itself is not an admirable or worthwhile goal. It is about designing learning experiences that best meet the needs of students. Toward that end, I offer 5 possible (but somewhat overlapping) reasons for considering the use of blended learning. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many more, but these represent some of the most commonly referenced reasons.

1. To reap the promised benefits of research findings about blended learning.

There is a growing body of literature that now spans over a decade about blended learning. We are finding multiple benefits from taking the best of both worlds (face-to-face and online) in the classroom. As such, some are choosing blended learning so they can reap the benefits suggested in these research reports.

2. To create opportunities for one-on-on and small group time between the teacher and students.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher is often working with everyone at the same time. That leaves little time for high-impact personalized moments with each student or small groups of students? Think of the idea of stations that is common in early childhood education. Now imagine a situation where you do the same thing with older students, even high school and college. Every “station” contributes something new to the student’s learning about a stated learning objective. Some stations might be practice, others a chance to test their knowledge of key ideas through an interactive low-stakes assessment online, and yet other stations might be the teacher working with a small group of students. This is one of many possible blended learning models, but it allows teachers the flexibility to meet the needs of more students while giving everyone rich and valuable learning experiences.

This is also part of the reason that many are opting for a form of blended learning called the flipped classroom, where students learn about basic content outside of class but then come to class to do “homework”, freeing up the teacher to wander the room and work with individuals or small groups as needed.

3. To provide personalized learning.

We all know that students are not the same. They come to our classes with different knowledge, skills, abilities, passions, prior knowledge beliefs about what we will be teaching, levels of confidence, and all sorts of other things that impact how and what they learn in our classes. One strategy in the past was to try to find a level of teaching that reaches somewhere in the middle, allowing the teacher (sometimes with help) to do special work with the struggling students and/or enhancements for the student performing well. Or, in some contexts, the struggling and high performing students just have their needs unmet, sometimes walking away from the experience bored, disconnected, and with little progress. As we think about leveraging the best of face-to-face and online instruction together, it gives us new ways to think about providing multiple pathways to the same learning destination, pathways that work for individuals. Or, for some it is more about the pace. Some self-paced digital learning experiences allow each student to work at different paces, better meeting their individual needs. Personalization by time and pace are challenging in many traditional classroom designs, but new opportunities arise when we explore blended learning designs.

Many talk about this is terms of moving away from a one-size-fits all approach to education.

4. To take advantage of student data and adaptive learning.

As educational products and software develop, there are growing selections of what is called adaptive learning software. It is software that adapts and adjusts according to student performance, allowing a level of personalization and tracking of student progress that is difficult otherwise. By blending a class experience between teacher-guided instruction and computer-based instruction with such software, teachers are able to get rich data about student progress, and students get lessons catered their own level and readiness. Take a look at the image included in this article written for educational publishers and content providers (you might be interested in reading the article too). Notice the feedback loops that I represent in the visual. Designing classes that get at these sorts of models if part of what is leading schools and teachers to opt for a blended learning approach.

Many argue that this data will help us from letting some students “fall between the cracks.”

5. Extending the classroom and resources beyond the school walls.

The digital revolution leaves us with unprecedented access to rich content, communities, and people from around the world. Some are designing blended learning lessons and experiences to capitalize upon this access, building opportunities for individual students or groups to engage with this online content and people or communities to help them make progress in their learning. We see this with foreign language instruction as teachers build programs for students from different countries to interact with each other. We see it for student-centered projects and research. We see it with students collaborating with professionals or students from other schools using digital tools.

One example comes from the idea of helping students build what we call a student personal learning network, but there are hundreds of other ways to leverage this access as well.

Educational Publishers & Content Providers: The Future is About Analytics, Feedback & Assessment

What is the future of educational publishers and content providers? As more content becomes freely distributed online and there are more creative (and sometimes free) products and services that help aggregate, curate, chunk, edit and beautify this content; there are questions about the role of educational publishers and content providers. While there is something to be said for a one-stop-shop for content, that might not be enough to secure a solid spot in the marketplace of the future, especially given that content is not the only thing for which people are shopping.

Some fear or simply predict the demise of such groups, but I expect a long and vibrant future. In fact, over the past decade or two, we’ve already witnessed publishing companies rebrand themselves as education companies with a broader portfolio of offerings than ever before. They’ve done so by adding experts in everything from educational psychology and brain research to instructional design, software development to game design, educational assessment to statistics, analytics, and testing. These are exactly the types of moves that will help them establish, maintain, and extend their role in the field of education. This is a shift from a time when many educational publishers and content providers would suggest that it is best to leave the “teaching” up to the professional educators. Now, more realize that there is not (nor has there really ever been) a clear distinction between the design of educational products and services and the use of them for teaching. Each influences the other, and understanding of educational research is critical for those who design and develop the products and services that inform what and how educators teach students.

According to this article, the preK-12 testing and assessment market is almost a 2.5 billion dollar market, “making them the single largest category of education sales” in 2012-2013! A good amount of this is the result of efforts to nationalize and standardize curriculum across geographic regions (like with the Common Core), allowing education companies to design a single product that aligns with the needs of a larger client base. However, even apart from such moves for standardization, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities and impact of using feedback loops and rich data to inform educational decisions.

This is just the beginning. If you are in educational publishing or a startup in the education sector, this is not only a trend to watch, but one to embrace. Start thinking about the next version of your products and services and how learning analytics and feedback loops fit with them. If you look at the K-12 Horizon Report’s 5-year predictions, you see learning analytics, the Internet of everything, and wearable technology. What do all three of these have in common? They are an extension of the Internet’s revolution of increased access to information, but this time it is increasing a new type of information and making it possible to analyze and make important decisions based on the data. Now we have a full circle. Data is experienced by learners. The actions and changes of the learner become new data points, which give feedback directly to the learner, to a teacher, or the product that provided the initial data. There is a new action taken by the learner, teacher and/or interactive product and the cycle continues (see the following image for three sample scenarios).

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 2.36.14 PM

Some (although an increasingly small number) still think of the Internet and digital revolution in terms of widespread access to rich content. Those are people who think that digitizing content is adequate. Since the 2000s, we’ve experience the social web, one that is read and write. Now we live in a time where those two are merged, and each action individually and collectively becomes a new data point that can be mined and analyzed for important insights.

While there are hundreds of analytics, data warehousing and mining, adaptive learning, and analytic dashboard providers; there is a powerful opportunity for educational content providers who find ways to animate their content with feedback, reporting features, assessment tools, dashboards, early alert features, and adaptive learning pathways. Education’s future is largely one of blended learning, and a growing number of education providers (from K-12 schools to corporate trainers) are learning to design experiences that are constantly adjusting and adapting.

The concept that we are just making products for the true experts, teachers, is noble and respectable, but the 21st century teacher will be looking for new content and learning experiences that interact with them (and their students), tools that give them rich and important data (often real-time or nearly-now) about what is working, what is not, who is learning, who is not, and why. They will be looking for ways to track and monitor learning progress. If a content provider does not do such things, it will be in jeopardy, with the exception of extremely scarce or high-demand content that can’t be easily accessed elsewhere.

As such, content still matters. It always will. However, the thriving educational content providers and publishers of the 21st century understand that the most high-demand features will involve analytics, feedback (to the learner, teacher, or back to the content for real-time or nearly now adjustments), assessment, and tracking.