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?


Teardrop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carmen Tschofen said...

Hi Wendy,

I think this is spot-on distinction; it’s certainly one I’ve been making with folks I talk to. I’ve been describing personalized learning as the leeway of tailoring approaches and instruction for those things that kids are required to do by others—put kind of baldly, a way of lessening the pain of “meeting standards” within a system. The whole “disruptive innovation” discussion seems to be about this. Personal learning, on the other hand, is the golden ticket for learner independence and life-long learning. I’m not sure that one scaffolds the other; I’ve come to suspect that personal learning builds on what we do innately but has been de-legitimized by “the system," which often makes learners so insecure they don't recognize their own (personal) learning even when they're doing it. I also wonder if, as “personalized learning” becomes a “best practice,” it is going to become the same control-based process or “change-but-not really” that standardized learning is.

Personalized and personal learning environments—now that’s another can of worms. ☺

Fiona Aubrey-Smith said...

Your distinction between personalising being a process that the learner themselves undertakes v. a process that is done on behalf of the learner is a good one.
My doctoral research centres around this, and the consequent relationship with online-ness. I'd be interested on your views on the role of the teacher in empowering the learner to personalise their own learning, and the factors that you feel might influence the teachers confidence to do so... (

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the distinction between 'personal' and 'personalised' which has helped my thinking. I feel that the tension (potentially positive) between teacher-led and student-initiated learning is fundamental to all education. At Thornhill Primary School, England, we are seeking to help children from 4-11 plan their own learning; however, we have developed a supportive structure for this as autonomy alone does not ensure quality learning. A personalised curriculum can still be extremely barren. Instead, we aim for learning that is personally meaningful.

Doug Woods said...

A fascinating read about a distinction I had not considered before.

I think personalized is fine, it is a question though of who is doing the personalizing. So often in the past I have attended events on Personalized learning only to find that all that is happening is that pupils are putting their name on every piece of work of designing their own covers for exercise books ... not quite the personalized learning I was expecting!

Can we consider personalization as a process of moving from a directed approach to learning to a personal approach? In this way personalized learning is not an outcome but a transition.

Nelson Heller said...

Wendy - Your thoughts about the networked student and personal learning environments are fascinating to me in the light of research I've been doing on the prospect that social learning can be a student curricular achievement booster. I wrote to Dr. Cathy Cavenaugh at U FL about this and she pointed me to your blog. My research is in preparation for my EdNET conference "Catbird" presentation, our annual look at major trends and school market drivers for the year to come.

My question was triggered by learning about Project K-nect . The way I understand it, 9th grade at-risk students in North Carolina used smart phones to access supplemental math content, and the results suggest an intriguing concept – namely that by making use of social learning tools to interact virtually with one another the students gained significantly in math proficiency. In other words, the technology let the students communicate and collaborate with one another and math tutors outside the school day (inside it too, at appropriate times), apparently helping them gain the math skills. One hypothesis is that K-nect provided an experience akin to working in traditional study groups but significantly enhanced by the numbers of students interacting and the ability to do it remotely 24/7. You might call it “virtual study groups on steroids.” While the K-nect students used a supplemental (digital) math curriculum, project leaders feel the student gains were much more a function of the social learning interaction than the curriculum. If this is valid and can be generalized to other areas of learning, and as the cost of the technology drops, it has major consequences for educational publishers and other industry suppliers. Before I stick my neck out about this, I’m looking for reality checks and others forms of validation.

Does all this make sense to you? Does it pass your reality check intuition? Do you think that the K-nect results might be attributable to other causes (e.g., a halo effect from motivation engendered by the technology), or might apply to some types of learning but not others?

Are you aware of any other experiences in which student use of blogs, wikis, messaging or other forms of web-based communication and social networking tools produced measurable gains in student curricular achievement (e.g., in science, social studies, ELA, history, etc.)?

Can you point me to any experts, researchers, or others who might help me with insights about the potential value of social learning and collaboration tools for K-12 education?

I’d be really grateful if you can help me with any of this.
Thanks for whatever input you can offer – even if it’s to say you think the idea is all wet!

Nelson B. Heller, PhD
President, EdNET/Heller Report
MDR — A D&B Company
T 858-720-1914
F 866-385-7309
C 858-539-9915

skbteacher said...

I agree we become to hung up on semantics; it is true that personalized does imply that the system is in control, while personal learning is when the student takes full responsibility for their education. I believe a student learns more when the student becomes accountable and responsible for the learning.

Unknown said...

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Social Learning

Unknown said...

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Social Learning