Personalized Learning; Part One

Personalized learning is the next big thing in public education but how it will play out in your child's classroom is, at this point, a big guess.  I note that Michael Tolley, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, seems interested in it and put forth requests to the Board about starting it up in Seattle Schools.

(To note, I believe that many teachers are, of course, doing personalized learning as much as they can within the scope of the size of their classrooms and the resources they have.  This is what teachers have done since teaching began.)


First, a word about these definitions from a story at KQED (bold mine):
“We often say we want creativity and innovation – personalization – but every mechanism we use to measure it is through control and compliance,” Laufenberg said. “Those things never come together as long as that is the overriding moment.” She cautions educators who may be excited about the progressive educational implications for “personalized learning” to make sure everyone they work with is on the same page about what that phrase means.  
As you might suspect, there are several definitions so I'll post a couple. 

From the U. S. Department of Education:
Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.

By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students.
Wikipedia has the most obvious definition (and, on the face of it, simplest):
Personalized learning, individualized instruction, personal learning environment and direct instruction all refer to efforts to tailor education to meet the different needs of students.

The use of the term "personalized learning" dates back to at least the early 1960s,[1] but there is no widespread agreement on the definition and components of a personal learning environment.[2] Even enthusiasts for the concept admit that personal learning is an evolving term and doesn't have any widely accepted definition.[3]

In 2005, Dan Buckley defined two ends of the personalized learning spectrum: "personalization for the learner," in which the teacher tailors the learning, and "personalization by the learner," in which the learner develops skills to tailor his own learning. This spectrum was adopted by the (2006) Microsoft’s Practical Guide to Envisioning and Transforming Education.[4]
One telling point, again from the Wickipedia page (bold mine):
Individualization refers to the strategies aiming to guarantee all students' mastery of the same learning objectives by adjusting the pace to the progression of the learner. The teacher (or computer) manages the best solution based on learner performance. Personalization, however, is also about using a student's individual abilities, sensibilities, and competencies (including emotional ones)—to develop his aptitudes, capabilities and talents. 
Typically technology is used to try to facilitate personalized learning environments.[6]
Individualized instruction relies upon carefully prepared instructional materials and lesson plans. Individualized instruction is recommended only for students of at least junior high school age, and presumes that they the self-discipline to be able to study independently. 
 From the Gates Foundation:
This growing movement is focused on changing the learning environment so students can take more ownership of their learning and teachers can work with them to discover their passions and interests.
The breakthrough idea in personalized learning is the striking shift in the teacher-student team. In traditional learning, the teacher is the leader and the student is a mostly passive recipient. In personalized learning, the student is the leader, and the teacher is the activator and the advisor.
They continue on to make this all sound exceptionally cozy:
Personalized learning creates deeper teacher-student bonds because the teacher has to know the student to customize a program and to offer advice.
That might be true if the teacher wasn't being encouraged to look at "data" to form a picture of a student, rather than actually knowing the student.  And, in large classes, is anyone believing the ability of teachers to create that kind of "knowing" and then customize a program for every single student? 

Here's their example:
Indianapolis’ Warren Central High School is a large traditional public school where 63 percent of students come from low-income families, and more than 50 percent are students of color. Warren’s teachers and students work together to create flexible and functional learning spaces. The shining example is the Warrior MediaPlex, the school’s former library. Redesigned, it now includes two computer labs called “SI-COM Labs,” which provide students with dual-monitor stations that mirror contemporary work environments and where students can view teachers’ screens as they’re following instructions for their work. 
The library as computer lab.

Here's a more broadly-based definition from Ed Week except that Ed Week is not as objective as they used to be and I see that their sources are ed reform groups.  What is fascinating about Education Week's "working definition" is that it leaves out the role of technology. 

Next Generation Learning Challenges (also affiliated with the Gates Foundation) says this:
The definition of personalized learning is rapidly evolving and its difference from other Next Gen Topics—like next gen learning and blended learning—may not be clear. Personalized learning can take place in digitally enhanced environments or not.
Here's the thinking from Educause Review by two researchers on this topic, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill (also funded by the Gates Foundation, sigh).  The article is around higher ed but applicable here:
 If we choose to think of personalized learning as a practice rather than a product, we can start by taking a hard look at course designs and identifying those areas that fail to make meaningful individual contact with students. These gaps will be different from course to course, subject to subject, student population to student population, and teacher to teacher. Although there is no generic answer to the question of where students are most likely to fall through the cracks in a course, there are some patterns to look for (as we will discuss later in this article). 
This is an idea I can support - a practice rather than a product.  But whenever you have the possibility of a massive number of people needing product for the practice, that's where it all goes one direction.
Technology then becomes an enabler for increasing meaningful personal contact.
Here's what they say happens(partial):
  • Moving content broadcast out of the classroom: Even in relatively small classes, a lot of class time can be taken up with content broadcast such as lectures and announcements. Personalized learning strategies often try to move as much broadcast out of class time as possible in order to make room for more conversation.  (Editor's note: see "flipping" a classroom as another term.)
  • Turning homework time into contact time: In a traditional class, much of the work that the students do is invisible to the teacher. Personalized learning approaches often allow the teacher to observe the students' work in digital products, so that there is more opportunity to coach students. Further, personalized learning often identifies meaningful trends in a student's work and calls the attention of both teacher and student to those trends through analytics. (Editor's note: this huge shift to data analysis is a fundamental shift in teaching.)
  • Providing tutoring: Sometimes students get stuck in problem areas that don't require help from a skilled human instructor. Although software isn't good at teaching everything, it can be good at teaching some things. Personalized learning approaches can offload the tutoring for those topics to adaptive learning software that gives students interactive feedback while also turning the students' work into contact time by making it observable to the teacher at a glance through analytics.
I smiled at this next part:
None of these techniques, by themselves, undepersonalize the teaching. They generally need to be designed and implemented by skilled educators as part of a larger course design that is intended to address the particular problems of particular students.
Designed and implement by skilled educators?  Common Core wasn't even written by educators so I'm not sure I believe that much of the personalized learning products that teachers will use will be written by educators.

Here's how it would work:
-Students in the course spend part of their class time in a computer lab, working at their own pace through an adaptive learning math program. 
-Students who already know much of the content can move through it quickly, giving them more time to master the concepts that they have yet to learn. 
-Students who have more to learn can take their time and get tutoring and reinforcement from the software. 
-Teachers, now freed from the task of lecturing, roam the room and give individual attention to those students who need it. They can also see how students are doing, individually and as a class, through the software's analytics. 

But the course has another critical component that takes place outside the computer lab, separate from the technology. Every week, the teachers meet with the students to discuss learning goals and strategies. Students review the goals they set the previous week, discuss their progress toward those goals, evaluate whether the strategies they used helped them, and develop new goals for the next week. 
So teachers have to learn how to use a personalized learning system (which I assume their district would assign to them - I doubt if individual teachers could do this on their own.) They also have to learn how to analyze large amounts of data that is being churned out every day (unless the personalized learning software does that for them but what if the data doesn't match what the teacher actually knows - in-person - about the students?)  Lastly, every week every teacher will talk one-on-one with every student?  I'll have to ask some teachers about that.
Because personalized learning is a family of educational practices that support good course designs, implementing those practices well is not as simple as buying a product.
To begin with, course design is always a time-consuming process when done correctly.
Second, in many cases faculty will be trying techniques they have not used before, requiring them to teach in ways that are very different from how they have taught before, that are far removed from their experience (and therefore instincts) of what works and what doesn't, and that may have ripple effects they don't anticipate.
On top of all this, the vast majority of faculty are neither trained in course design/research nor compensated for any time they invest in it. They will need time and support. In many cases, implementing personalized learning well can require an institutional effort analogous to the one required to implement an online learning program well.
So for K-12 educators there's new Common Core-based curriculum AND new high-stakes tests and now "personalized learning?"  Where are the resources for this?
And here's where we get to the crux of what personalize learning is - more technology-based learning that may or may not be truly "personalized."   And I'm not saying personalized learning = digital learning.  I'm saying the main basis for personalized learning revolves around using technology.

One big item to note is that this is a different thing from tracking student achievement data broadly; this tracks every single student. 

As I look over the research I have, this may be a three to four part series as I want to cover:
  • who is using it
  • who is promoting it (three guesses and you'd probably be right every single time)/ making money off it
  • costs to districts
  • opinion from experts in all corners


Anonymous said…
Isn't learning always personalized? It seems they are actually talking about personalized teaching.

Tolley is just salivating over the $11M under-spend. Why is it staff always have time for their pet projects but not the ones the Board requires?
HP, you caught something that comes up in many articles.

Concerned SPS, I'm attending the A&F ctm meeting today where it is to be discussed. I'll let you know if anything is decided (or, at least, what is discussed.)
Anonymous said…
So I know that a few people do perform better using online courses, and I do have a teacher friend who swears by the flipped classroom. But I am extremely skeptical of pouring money into a technology when it has been proven over and over that face-to-face contact between teachers and students is a much better guarantee of success, especially for struggling students.

Absolutely, if money were an unlimited resource, go for it. But with a limited budget, I would so much prefer to see that extra money go towards more teachers and less staff turnover, smaller class sizes, more school counselors, more art and music teachers, etc. Technology is a poor but expensive substitute for human contact.

NW Mom
data said…
Haven't even touched on the student-data-mining aspect of these systems.

IF the district ever decides to go with one or more of these online "personalized learning" systems, they'd better damn well do it using anonymous IDs that have been stripped of personally identifiable information. No way, no how, should ANY individual student data be shipped off to these companies!

Anonymous said…
From NPR this morning. Personalized learning with 15 kids per class chosen in a 6 month process to find the right fit between student, family and school. Plus private school tuition.

Actually, Data, I do have one line about it at the end and I plan to write more on that issue.

PW, thanks for the link. Kind of a private school that aspires to be a charter school (providing innovation to other schools.) And that's great. I think there are interesting things going on at private schools but, by their very nature, it may not be possible to replicate what they do.

The kids going into this school in the NPR piece are already self-selective and coming from very wealthy families.

But Khan's idea - of personalized learning being smaller class sizes, more self-directed and being known by staff - is great. And I bet that if they introduced a lot of technology use in these classrooms, the parents would not be happy.

But here's the kicker quote:

"But at this school, she says, she's been able to return to what drew her to teaching in the first place: helping students cultivate their interests and passions. "I can honestly say I know these kids inside and out. Part of that is because I have 15, and before I had 150. You just cannot get to personally know 150 kids. It's more like a factory operating line."

I'll bet the kids feel that way as well.
Anonymous said…
"Flipped" classrooms are based on several sets of assumptions.

1) all kids have access to technology and the internet outside of school/can meet technological requirements
2) all kids have time outside of school to access technological content (oops - you work? too bad for you! athlete - oh well!)
3) all kids have the motivation to sit and view a lecture, etc. outside of class
4) all learning is best done in isolation, with the student just absorbing the lecture content
5) all teachers have the time to create/record said lectures that are responsive to current student interests (not recording a whole bunch of stuff one year and replaying it year after year after year, which is often done in both HS and college courses)

Hopefully I don't have to point out the flaws in those assumptions....

Also, "competency-based" education is merely a new name for an old fad. Mastery learning, reborn! Hallelujah! My high school years all over again.


Anonymous said…
Whoops - #4 should have said "most"
The theory behind flipped classrooms is that the content is delivered outside of school time to better use class time for discussions, etc, however, in my experiences helping secondary teachers and college professors put together their courses (and try to make them accessible - not an easy task), most used the "flipped classroom" or online delivery systems simply as a means to cram more content in. Theory is one thing, reality is another.

Anonymous said…
Larry Cuban has been writing about "personalized learning" recently. He points out that there are a spectrum of things that get called that.

Po3 said…
Funny, I remember when it was called differentiated learning.

Josh Hayes said…
I think of this as the "technology, dammit!" approach. Many educational consultants and their ilk think that the bottleneck in the classroom is the teacher, and that really, all teachers do is spew information. Heck, computers can do THAT! Then all the teacher has to do is, uh, stuff. You know.

After only three years in the classroom I can tell you how preposterous this idea is. At my current school kids DO all have laptops (it's a 1:1 school) and sure we make use of that, but the group dynamic is critical. In any one of my classes, I'm not a tutor with 32 clients, I'm a teacher with one class. Pushing a computer-guided work set down my and my students' collective throat may well be great for admin, and great for tech companies who sell the stuff, but it doesn't help the majority of students, and it vitiates the benefit of being IN A SCHOOL, with other students.

Kids' lives are already atomized, already diffuse because of the pull of the cyberworld. Do we really want to encourage yet another force to separate them?
Anonymous said…
If by personalized learning we mean driven by the individual student, isn't Montessori personalized learning?

-HS Parent
HS Parent, again, it depends very much on who is setting the definition but in the broadest sense, yes, Montessori is very much personalized learning. In the Gates world, no, because kids aren't using technology at all.
Anonymous said…
Would personalized (online) learning be supported for AL? It would provide an option for accessing advanced math beyond what is offered in MS.

Wondering, I'll get into what personalized learning could offer. I'm sure that claim could be made but I think if a district was starting down this road, it would start with struggling students.

Naturally, if you wanted to do this across a district, you would have offerings for AL, ELL, Sped, etc. students. But I'm not sure a launch like that would be possible at one time because naturally, this taking planning and training and resources.
Anonymous said…
I have seen a couple of SPS secondary schools using Read 180 with struggling students, which provides individual lessons on computers. Are teachers finding it helpful? Not sure how is it different from the old SRA lessons which were provided in hard copy. Is it more customizable?

-HS Parent
Lynn said…
I've heard that it's quite successful at Garfield. The PTSA funds the program there.
Anonymous said…
HS Parent - as with all things, it depends on how it is used. If it is used as an intervention, includes all 3 components (90 minute block including small-group direct instruction, in which the teacher uses resource books and works closely with individual students, students’ independent use of the READ 180 computer program to practice reading skills, modeled and independent reading, in which students use READ 180 paperbacks or audiobooks), and does not take the place of regular English instruction, it has proven to be effective for some kids. When it becomes THE English/Literature class, not so much. Peer-reviewed research results are mixed - 2 statistically significant positive results, 1 positive results but not significant, 3 statistically insignificant results:

Ms206 said…
Technology has a place in the classroom, however, the foundation of teaching is a personal relationship between the teacher and the child, as well as one child to another. Providing software for children that allows the child to work at his or her own pace in reading or math is wonderful. But this personalized, computerized learning can never take the place of face-to-face learning and the socialization that face-to-face learning involves. I believe this to be true for K-12, college, and at any age. Humans are social creatures. We are supposed to interact with each other--not computers or cell phones.
Anonymous said…
I was fortunate enough to be in small classroom settings at a few points in my educational career. I highly valued these small classes, for two reasons: one, the student-teacher dynamic (I was someone who greatly benefited from being called on, put on the spot, Socratic method, etc) and two, the benefits of group discussion. While this might possibly help with the first point, I can't see that it us anything to do with the second.

Anonymous said…
At my child's APP classes the children are given access to Dreambox for adaptive, interactive self study of math. Unfortunately it is locked at grade level, so it is only useful for remediation in the APP class. I was told that there was not access to upper levels... Something about the contract with the vendor. So, it only provides differentiation in one direction in this case. Too bad.
Anonymous said…
I love that Tolley is chasing the latest greatest bright shiny thing - it makes a lot more sense than actually taking a piece of the nightmare, figuring out what is going on, what needs to be shorted / chopped / lengthened / supported ... & getting it done.

They might as well just give the guy another $50 or $75,000 a year for this caliber

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