Visitors to environments designed for learners to have a personalized experience with their learning often comment that they see significant variations in approaches and organization across classrooms and other learning spaces. They ask how they should make sense of the differences and whether each of the approaches really represents personalization.
Without a context to frame the interactions between and among learners and educators, such questions are understandable, even predictable. However, when the learning environment is viewed through the framework of our honeycomb model of personalized learning, it is easier for visitors to make sense of what they see. Schools and classrooms in our network that are implementing personalized learning begin with the core components of a personalized learning ecosystem: learner profiles, proficiency-based progress and customized learning paths. Educators build on this foundation by incorporating additional elements as they expand and scale. Because each district, school and classroom is different, the order and the way these additional elements are added and absorbed will likely be different as well.
Nevertheless, there does remain a continuum of personalized learning. Learning ecosystems that have incorporated more of the elements will be further along that continuum than those that have just started. Our awareness of this continuum can be helpful to understanding and interpreting what is happening in environments where learning is personalized. Let’s consider three points along this continuum and how learning is likely to be nurtured.
Personalized to the learner
At one end of the continuum is personalized learning that might be thought of as preference and readiness based. Personalization is based on learner preference and adjustments in learning tasks. Levels of challenge are based on what the learner is ready to learn. A good technology based example is adaptive learning programs. Questions and levels of difficulty presented to learners are informed by choices and success demonstrated in response to previous questions.
When educators offer learners tasks chosen based on previous work they often are following a similar path. Learners may be offered choices within the tasks presented and the pace of their learning may be flexible in response to their needs. However, the scope of flexibility is narrow and learner driven decisions tend to be confined. In this context, educators are more focused on curating resources, tasks and activities to present to learners based on their readiness, preferences and learning maturity.
A potentially helpful analogy might be online search engines. Searcher preferences and past history of inquiries are used to generate a list of options and responses. While convenient and often efficient, this iteration of personalized learning remains largely dependent on the decisions of educators.
Personalized with the learner
Near the middle of the continuum we find learner and educator roles shifting toward equal balance. Here learners and educators share a focus on standards to be achieved. They determine together the learner skills, readiness, clarity of purpose and learning capacity necessary to address the challenge represented by specific standards. This shared information is used to co-construct the learning path. Here the learner’s contributions are solicited as an important dimension of how learning will be approached and progress will be monitored.
Learners at this point in the continuum share ownership for their learning. They focus on what they are learning and how they are growing as a learner. Attention shifts from narrow choices and largely adult decisions about what and how to learn to a more flexible partnership. Here, customizing the path to standards is seen as the key to building the knowledge and skills necessary to support future learning and grow the capacity of the learner to make informed, responsible, independent decisions.
An analogy might be ordering an automobile from a manufacturer. We choose the car or truck we want and can choose the color we prefer, the size of engine we desire and accessories that we find attractive. However, our choices come from a confined set of options presented by the manufacturer. We are given an array of choices, but the choices are limited by what the manufacture is capable of and willing to offer.
Personalized by the learner
At the other end of the personalized learning continuum we see the balance shifting even further toward learners taking a more active role in planning their learning. Educators at this end of the continuum provide expertise, guidance and coaching, but do not control. Standards remain integral to the work, but here learners are taking increasing responsibility for planning their learning path, monitoring their progress and demonstrating learning through a variety of means. This relationship might be described as co-creating the learning experience.
The analogy here might be engaging an architect to help us build a new home. As the owner, we contribute what we want in a house, the ways our family interacts, the activities in which we want to engage and other dimensions important to us. The architect brings expertise about design, construction, trends and ideas related to how homes can respond to various life styles and preferences, but follows our lead in the development of plans and size and scope of the structure. We may benefit greatly from the expertise and support of the architect, but the vision and key decisions about the home remain ours.
Each of these examples of how personalized learning might look and function have a place and serve a purpose in making learning a meaningful, successful endeavor for learners. At times learners may need more support and guidance as they develop skills or engage in unfamiliar learning tasks. At other times, learners need educators to be partners in planning their learning path, sharing expertise, providing information and support and defining parameters. At still other times, learners need to take the lead in defining learning outcomes and constructing the path while relying on the experience, expertise and coaching of educators to support what the learner has committed to achieve.