Thursday, August 5, 2010

Personal vs Personalized Learning

I was reading the Washington Post article, Bill Gates' troubling involvement in school reform,  when I came across the following excerpt that troubled me even more than the focus of the article.
What is the next experiment Gates is likely to foist on our schools? It looks to be online learning, as the new magical answer to "personalized" instruction.  This practice has been once again pioneered in NYC schools through the discredited practice of "credit recovery," in which students are encouraged to spend a few days online, cutting and pasting their answers into a software program, in order to quickly gain the credits they need to graduate, even if they have failed all their courses and/or never attended class. 
I hate to think this is anyone's vision of online learning.  Unfortunately, it is just this type of off-the-cuff statement in a mainstream news article that can turn a few words into a reader's permanent perception.  But, what actually caught my eye was the reference to "personalized" instruction.  While some use personalized and personal learning interchangeably,  I believe the distinction is important.

There is considerable discourse around personalizing the learning experience.  A few examples include Jeff Rice in California, Pearson, EdWeek, and The Training Place that defines a number of different types of personalization.  Note that these are all slightly different approaches.  Most suggest that the educational activity be customized for the learner.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, a more customized approach to learning would be a welcome change from the current prescribed curriculum offered in most schools.   But, this is not the same as personal learning.

Consider a US automobile license plate.  All states and many countries provide the option to personalize your plate.  You can create a "vanity" tag within the limits of the system (e.g. 7 letters, original, not obscene).  Whether or not you personalize your tag, you are required by the state to have one.  Personalized learning has a similar connotation to me.  Personalized learning, while customized for the student, is still controlled by the system.  A district, teacher, company, and/or computer program serve up the learning based on a formula of what the child "needs". 
I believe personal learning environments are different from personalized learning environments in that the learner controls the learning process.  He or she constructs the learning environment based on what will be learned and who will be invited to participate in or support the learning.

I will be the first to admit that The Networked Student and Welcome to My PLE examples walk the line between personalized and personal learning.  While the students have some level of choice, the teacher retains control over subject area and some content.  These young students are networked learners in training.  Some level of scaffolding is required to facilitate greater autonomy in the long run.  In these examples, the ultimate goal is to scaffold the personal learning process so that students will assume greater control over time.  I'm not sure this is the goal of personalized learning.  I fear we are already mired in semantics.  Are we using the appropriate terminology?  I'm really interested in your thoughts.

What is the difference between personalized and personal learning environments?