Are educators ready for personalized learning?

When the National Ed. Tech Plan came out in 2010 many of us started thinking seriously about what personalization means in the 1:1 environment. At the time there seemed to be quite a bit of confusion about the definition of personalization, as opposed to instructional strategies such as differentiation and individualization. To help clarify, in 2011 I wrote in A Guidebook for Change that “individualization and personalization are two methods that are used to meet the needs of each student.  An individualized curriculum is one that is tailored by the teacher to assessments of each student’s interests and abilities. With personalized learning, however, the student takes an active role in the development of his or her own learning path. The difference, then, between individualization and personalization is in the locus of control. Is the curriculum and instruction actively controlled by the teacher or by the student?” (pg. 62)

In 2012 I had the privilege to meet Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey at ISTE. We were participating in an ISTE book forum in which Barbara and Kathleen spoke about personalization (http://www.slideshare.net/bbray/personalize-learning). A nice resource that is embedded in Barbara and Kathleen’s presentation is a chart that compares differentiation, individualization and personalization. You can find the chart at http://www.slideshare.net/bbray/personalizedlearninchart.

In their ISTE presentation Barbara and Kathleen identified the same confusion about personalization I had been witnessing, and described the personalized learning environment as focused on the learner, instead of focusing on instruction. They said that when personalizing learning “The learner is active in designing their learning goals, has a voice in how they like to access and acquire information, how they prefer to engage with content, and how they will express their understanding. When learners own and take responsibility of their learning, they are more motivated and engaged in the learning process.”

Today it seems like everyone is talking about personalization, but are we really ready as a nation to embrace personalization? What would personalization look like, and what might be some of the consequence of this shift?

Imagine a classroom where teachers work with each student individually to co-design the student’s learning pathway. Students would follow their own learning challenges, rather than following an instructional curriculum of set objectives that all students are required to navigate through. The students would also develop their own evaluation process, while the teacher mentors them to become more aware of the learning process, and to become self-regulating. Possibly the most controversial aspect of personalized learning, however, is that traditional outcomes may not be predictable. Therefore, a new paradigm of student achievement would also need to be established.

So I ask the question, again. Are we ready as a nation to embrace personalization? Almost everyone I talk to believes that it is a good idea. But are we really ready to turn much of the control over learning to students? Are teachers prepared to facilitate a classroom where every student may be working on different things, with different content, different goals, and different assessments? How many teachers can even imagine doing this for a class of 30 students, let alone for the 150 or more they see every day? And how can any of this happen within the current public school reality of Common Core standards and high stakes tests?

I think educators that are quick to say they support the concept of personalization and are planning to implement it are really talking about individualizing instruction. Individualized learning can also help engage and empower students, but it does so while preserving the current teacher-centered system of education.

Personalized learning, on the other hand, is a 2nd order change. It will require a fundamental shift in our educational systems, processes, and pedagogy. I’m not sure it is possible for the educational system to embrace this transformation in the current political environment. I also understand that there is never a time when 2nd order change is easy because it require a change in people’s belief systems. I do know, however, that it is technically possible to transform the education systems, processes, and pedagogy through the use of personal portable technology. Personalizing the education of all students worldwide could have a dramatic and positive impact on the scale of the invention of the printing press, and I dream of the day when children across the globe are finally able to develop to their full potential.

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