Perhaps you’re like me and have started seeing the term “personalized learning” all over the place. In this post, I will explain the basics of personalized learning, show how online technology can create opportunities for students to use it, and argue that personalized learning, while perhaps helpful to individual students, may not be the best educational format for our society.
Personalized learning has gained traction with educators everywhere. In British Columbia, Canada, elementary school principal Paul Lorette said,
“Personalized learning, to me, is the process of contouring learning to the individuals that you’re dealing with, recognizing that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, different interests [and] different ways of learning…personalized learning is finding the best ways to engage with people with different interests, passions and ways of thinking.”
According to the Personalized Learning Foundation, personalized learning began as part of the homeschooling movement and has influenced the growth of more student-responsive education by creating an alternative to traditional classroom education. They argue that “it is time to recognize and acknowledge that a one size fits all classroom-only model can no longer effectively serve the needs of all public education students.” Instead, the PL Foundation proposes that personalized learning is more effective because:
“Personalized Learning is a blended approach to learning that combines the delivery of education both within and beyond the traditional classroom environment. The Personalized Learning model fosters a collaborative partnership between the teacher, parent, student and school that designs a tailored learning program for each student according to the needs and interests of each individual student.”
The PL Foundation indicates that there are several basic components of personalized learning:
- strong emphasis on parental involvement
- smaller class sizes
- more one-on-one teacher and student interaction
- attention to differences in learning styles
- student-driven participation in developing the learning process
- technology access
- varied learning environments
- teacher and parent development programs
- choices in curriculum programs
Online Ed and Personalized Learning
Though personalized learning is usually considered the realm of early education, in many ways higher education is already based on some of these principles, such as curriculum choice, varied learning environments, etc. It is also especially evident in online learning, which may be an almost perfectly-designed mode of implementation for personalized learning: for example, in self-paced courses there is no end date and students can work on their assignments and communicate with professors both on their own schedule and one-on-one.
However, according to Heather Clayton Staker in “Warning Signs for Personalized Learning,” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 11, 2012) while “digital technology is the one innovation that can bring personalized learning into reach, because it makes customized education for all students affordable,” students still haven’t benefited from online personalized learning because “digital technology is a huge category, and many do not bother to unpack it.” It is currently a grab-bag of tools, programs, and products that everyone assumes equates to “personalized learning,” rather than a clear articulation of the ways that each kind of digital technology functions and which actually promote personalized learning. This prevents truly effective uses of digital technology to promote and sustain personalized learning. This issue must be addressed in order to create truly effective and practical ways to implement more individualized curriculum and programs.
Concerns about Personalized Learning
Despite the growing acceptance of personalized learning, there are some potential problems. For example, personalized learning may be based on faulty theory. The Personalized Learning Foundation argues that this form of education is important because “each student has his or her own learning style.” But the concept of learning styles has lately been under fire. For example, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia points out that there is no substantive data that proves that students learn differently at all. He points out that
“Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for 50 years. They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability. There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.”
Even worse, Willingham argues, “when you think about it, the theory of learning styles doesn’t really celebrate the differences among children: On the contrary, the point is to categorize kids.” This categorization can possibly have very damaging results for students at all levels, who might learn that they have limitations rather than learn to accept and conquer challenges.
A final concern of mine is that we have not yet found out if personalized learning will provide the same opportunities for learning such fundamental components of democratic societies as, sacrifice, teamwork, and interaction with others through group learning. These are the democratic principles of citizenship that were one of the reasons the public education system was created in the first place. Public education is a product of the desire to create an educated-and equal–citizenry. It was always intended to provide a basic education, not a specialized program for each individual. As they say, there is no “I” in team, and above all, public education is a “team” endeavor because it is a national endeavor. If we start creating personalized education based on the specific abilities and interests of each student, will we lose the shared foundation of knowledge that all citizens should have the opportunity to learn? In other words, will such thorough individualism negate the possibility of increased social unity? These are important questions that deserve discussion before the implementation of any personalized learning programs.