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'Personalized Learning:' More Than Technology

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What do you mean when you say "personalized learning?"

That's one of the questions prompted by a new report that aims to provide guidance for states as they use new flexiblity, provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act, to do deeper work to shape learning around students' needs. The report, by the organization iNACOL, offers examples of promising practice in this area. And in doing so, it serves as a strong reminder of what personalized learning is not: It's not just about technology.

That's especially notable coming from iNACOL, which has been a key player in the evolution of online learning. And yet here's personalized.JPGiNACOL, emphasizing once again that personalized learning is far more than using technology to learn. As the report makes clear, iNACOL envisions personalized learning as being served by—not defined by—computers and other technological tools.

Personalizing education for students, the iNACOL report says, might involve:

  • Building an education system that allows students to progress at their own pace.
  • Permitting—no, not just permitting, ensuring—that students have meaningful roles in what and how they're learning.
  • Using authentic ways of measuring what students have learned, such as presentations or work portfolios.
  • Creating many ways for students to learn what they need to learn.

It discusses how 10 leading-edge states are making headway with policies to support those approaches. (See my colleague Leo Doran's post on Digital Education for more details about iNACOL's policy recommendations for states.)

Sorting out what personalized learning really is, and the work that constitutes it, play out in a big way in the middle and high school space. Educators recognize adolescents' fondness for new technology, and are eager to harness it to make their school experience more engaging. Some of those undertakings are exciting, hands-on projects that use the richness of technology to explore a cool subject deeply. Others, however, are pretty much business as usual, but with laptops. A deeper inquiry? Maybe not. More engaging? The jury's out. More instructionally beneficial? Who knows?

This question came up at a recent meeting of the Education Writers Association. At a session that focused on high school, we discussed the role of personalized learning with panels of people who are trying to help lead that charge. Tellingly, some of these experts talked about personalized learning, while others called it competency-based learning. I'm pretty sure the phrase "mastery-based learning" was tossed in there, too. A couple of the presentations suggested that computer-based learning was interchangeable with personalized learning.

Andrew Frishman, of Big Picture Learning, which launched a network of high schools in 1995 that were shaped by the idea of personalized learning, said there is "a real debate now" about what these terms mean, and where they overlap. He cited a February post by iNACOL titled "Meaning Matters," and a 2013 report, "Mean What You Say," as helpful resources in distinguishing among concepts such as "differentiation," "competency-based," "personalized" and "blended" learning.

Big Picture's list of defining characteristics ("10 Distinguishers") doesn't mention technology. Discussing personalized learning with reporters, Frishman emphasized that shaping school around students' needs and interests isn't necessarily about technology (though it could include it). It's about "fundamentally changing the role of teachers," too. "This work isn't about making the ships go faster," he said. "It's not about fixing or tweaking what we're already doing."

The iNACOL report outlines work that isn't interchangeable with—but also doesn't exclude—using innovative technology in schools. It offers a basis for good discussion in middle and high schools, and in school district offices, that are trying to sort out the role they want technology to play—or that students might like it to play—in building learning experiences that are better, richer, than the ones we offer now.

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