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.

Competency-based Badges for Differentiated Instruction

I’m delighted to start with the third MOOC that I’ve hosted. This one is called Adventures in Blended Learning. The following video explains the main goals of the course.

As I say in the video, one of the goals is to get informed about the possibilities of teaching and learning in the digital age. So, on the first night of the course, Kirsty Plander tweeted the following:

I love these sorts of questions. These are the types of teaching and learning questions that great teachers are constantly asking. A question like this represents awareness of students, the ability to observe and identify challenges to learning, and a desire to explore possibilities that will better meet the needs of each learner. In this case, Kristy poses a classic question about meeting the needs of diverse learners. We all know that students come to our classes with widely different life experiences, levels of confidence about formal learning environments, different levels of background knowledge about the course, different attention spans, different goals and passions, and so much more. Each person is a unique creation, full of potential. If that is true, how to you give some power to the potential in each student?

Some approach this by trying to teach to the middle, thinking this will stretch those who struggle, meet the needs of the majority, and hopefully be enough to not bore the advanced students. Yet, if you’ve taught for a few years, you know that such a strategy doesn’t work especially well. What are our options?

This is where blended learning becomes a promising possibility. As many explain, blended learning allows you to address these sorts of challenges by blending the best of face-to-face teaching and learning with the best of digital learning experiences. Allow me to share one (of many possible ways to design a blended experience to address the situation posted in Kristy’s Tweet above, and I’ll do it with two things that I’ve written quite a bit about over the last year or two: competency-based education and digital badges.

For the sake of time, I’ll just use the Educase explanation of competency-based education for now.

The competency-based education (CBE) approach allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment. This method is tailored to meet different learning abilities and can lead to more efficient student outcomes. – http://www.educause.edu/library/competency-based-education-cbe

Imagine you are teaching an introductory business course. Some students have work experience, they learned quite a bit from their parents, and they are coming to the course with a working knowledge of the basics. Others do not have a clue, but this is the first course, so there are no pre-requisites. So, imagine breaking that introductory course (or just the prerequisites) into a discrete list of competencies. What skills do they need to have upon completion of the course? what skills do they need to thrive in the course in the first place (prerequisites)?

Once you have that list, now imagine creating a simple tutorial or or learning experience associated with that skill. It might include a reading or two, a recorded mini-lecture on the topic, a couple of practices exercises, a couple of case studies or real-life situations that use that skill or concept, an ungraded practice quiz for students to test their knowledge, as well as some advanced applications of the same concept (added as an optional…going deeper element). Finally, you come up with a description of how you would know when a person truly has the understanding and skill that you wanted in the area. You write it out in a specific and measurable list of criteria.

All this goes into an online learning module. There is a different module for each core concept. When students come to the course, they complete some sort of pre-test to see what they do or don’t know, what skills that do or don’t have. That pre-test should include measures for each of the modules built online. This could be done pretty easily using any number of online quiz/test tools. The result will give the student a list of areas to work on for the course. If a student performs well, they might be guided to a set of more advanced tutorials or just more advanced applications of the same basic concepts. If the student did not do as well, the list of suggested modules are included. Students can progress through completion of the modules and demonstration of their growing competency on a personalized, self-paced basis (or, perhaps certain skills must be demonstrated by the end of week 2 or 3 of the course). When a student completes the module, a digital badge is issued (here are some options for creating badges, or some LMSs like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard have them built-in). The badge is evidence that students met the criteria. You can even set the badges up in levels. You need to complete all 8 level 1 badges to gain access to the 5 level two badges…you get the idea.

This may sound like a ton of work to prepare. It is, but it doesn’t have to be all done at once. In fact, you could involve a group of students in helping create some of these modules as practice tools for themselves and learning modules for future classes. Refining and improving the modules could even be a challenge/task for students who perform well on the pre-tests.

There are so many ways to get at a challenge like Kristy described, but I see this one as especially promising. In fact,  it would not be hard to co-create it with a team of faculty at several schools, sharing their resources with one another. It would be a great way to divide the labor and make it more doable. Or, if one is not ready for that option, the instructor can just start small. Start with 3-5 of the most important skills or the areas where the most students enter a class with deficiencies.

What do you think? Would this potentially help address the challenge posed by Kristy? What are the benefits and downsides to such a practice? What other strategies might you consider? Can you think of how we might blend learning across face-to-face and online instruction to help address it?

Even as I’m finishing this article, I’m thinking about how to approach it in a completely different way through a self-directed, project-based approach. If you are game, I’d love to hear your suggestions on proposed ways to address this challenge. Why not share your it in the comment area?