Defining Personalized Learning

mazeThe term "personalized learning" came up recently in several articles about Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning.”

Their recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) intends to support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs. But they also intend to use a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development. That's a tall order. And not one that has not been attempted before.

In the 40 years I have been an educator, I have heard about personalized learning under terms like individualized instruction, personal learning environment, direct instruction differentiation and even adaptive learning. 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, but definitions still vary and it is still an evolving term. 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 and has been updated by Microsoft in other publications.

CZI now has former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton as the initiative’s president of education. It is encouraging to me that he said “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology. In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting... Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer. Forget about that.”

CZI will direct 99 percent of their Facebook shares (an $45 billion) to causes related to education and science, through a combination of charitable giving and investment.

Being in technology, you would expect Zuckerberg to want to put a lot of the money and efforts into that area. That's what happened with many of the efforts that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made in education.

Adaptive learning - which I don't see as the same thing as personalized learning but some people do -  is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. The technology allocates both the human (teachers, tutors, counselors)  and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs. A lot of computer-aided assessment and responses to questions, tasks and experiences direct the next step for the learner.

Adaptive learning technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, psychology, and brain science. Although this approach is not teacher- or student-centered, it does attempt to transform the learner from passive receptor of information to collaborator in the educational process. Adaptive learning systems have been used in education and also in business training. 

CZI realize this personalized learning will extend over decades. They began in December 2015, shortly after the birth of their first child.

The Initiative has invested in BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app, and Enlearn, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has developed a new adaptive-learning platform. CZI has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a $12 million “venture philanthropy” grant award. 

When I was starting my teaching career in the mid-1970s, the personalization was mostly driven by teachers and rarely used technology. 

But how does this fit into the newest version of the main federal K-12 education law, Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunately, our national plans usually only last for only 4 or 8 years (based on administrations), so we never see a cohort of students go through an educational lifetime. The new law does seem to push states and schools to think about more than standardized-test scores when determining what it means to help students thrive.

Do we need a clear and set definition of personalized learning in order to move forward? How does the CZI idea of educating the "whole child" fit into personalizing learning? 

The Internet As Café

caféI was quite charmed last year when I made my first visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. I had in my mind a Romanticized version of the city and its famed café culture. In my imagination, it was people sipping coffee on sidewalk table and talking about art and literature. When my wife and I went for coffee and dessert at the Café Imperial, it was certainly much grander than anything I had imagined.

We did find those little cafés too, so I was able to embrace my Romantic version of the city. There is also the well-documented role of  the coffeehouse in the Age of Enlightenment. These informal gatherings of people played an important role in innovation in politics, science, literature and religion.

Next year, I hope to visit the Café de Flore which is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris. Located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, it is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele. At one time, those tables overheard conversations from existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,  writer Albert Camus and artist Pablo Picasso.

In science, breakthroughs seem to rarely come from just one person working alone. Innovation and collaboration usually sit at the table together. We are currently in a time when, at least in American politics, collaboration seems nonexistent.

This notion is what caught my attention in an interview I heard with Steven Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From.
He writes about how “stacked platforms” of ideas that allow other people to build on them.  This way of ideas coming together from pieces borrowed from another field or another person and remixing feels very much like what has arisen in our digital age.

One example he gives is the 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. It is an innovative album for that time in its use of samples well before the practice became mainstream. Eno was inspired by the varied voices and music and advertising on New York AM radio which was so different from the straightforward BBC radio he grew up with in England. He thought about repurposing all that talk into music.

We call that “decontextualizing” now – in this case a sound or words taken out of context and put in a new place. But this borrowing and remixing also occurs with ideas in culture, science and technology.

Unfortunately, ideas are not always free to connect with each other. Things like copyright and intellectual property law get in the way. We often silo innovators in proprietary labs or departments and discourage the exchange of ideas.

I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had a Club of Honest Whigs that would meet at the London Coffeehouse, when he was in England and they would hang out and exchange ideas.

Johnson describes these as “liquid networks” – not so much for the coffee, but for the fluidity in the conversation. These informal networks work because they are made up of different kinds of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity is not just necessary as a biological concept but as an intellectual one.

The Internet was built on ideas stacked on top of ideas. A whole lot of code and ideas are underneath this post. At its best, when I write online I am connecting, if only virtually, with other writers, artists and thinkers, and connecting literally through hyperlinks to those ideas.

I know there are “Internet cafés,” but what about Internet as a café?