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? 

panOpen and Instructure Partner on OER

open signThis month, panOpen announced that it is partnering with Instructure to integrate panOpen's OER-based learning platform into the Canvas learning management system. This is important because it furthers the use of Open Educational Resources, and it is something to watch as it moves OER deeper into the commercial side of higher education. 

I'm not opposed to this move. It reminds me of how open source software - such as another LMS, Moodle - became a platform you could purchase through a partner who would host it and manage it for a school. It was ten years ago that I wrote here about bringing Moodle to my university. I had done a presentation on the process which I had initiated in 2005 and compared it to kittens. "It's free - like free kittens." That phrase came back to me in looking at the panOpen website where they say this about OER being free:

"Educational content that is licensed under a Creative Commons license is free to use and share. Depending on the CC license, one may also be able edit and create derivative versions. If there is a cost to OER, it is not for the underlying content but for the technology and support services that enhance them to create more compelling learning tools. As is commonly noted in open source software, OER are free like puppies not like beer. It takes some effort to make sure they’re healthy and strong. Even so, when there’s a fee associated with OER it’s typically a small fraction of the cost of conventional textbooks."

Instructure's Canvas is probably the fastest growing LMS in the marketplace today, so this partnership has the potential to make real inroads. Is OER entering the mainstream? Are they being viewed as a compelling alternative to commercial content?

Virtual Reality Education and Flying Cars


The Holodeck

People love to use the prediction that we would all be using flying cars by the 21st century as an example of a future technology that never happened. Remember how virtual reality and the augmented reality was going to change everything? So far, it's not.

Last summer, Pokemon Go was huge and even though many people would dismiss it as a silly game, it was AR and seemed like it might change gaming and who knows what else. The promise, or perhaps more accurately the potential, of VR in education is also a popular topic. 

We know that the Internet enabled students to access materials from other institutions and to travel to distant places for their research. Virtual reality may one day change the ways in which we teach and learn. That has me thinking about "virtual reality education" - something I imagine to be unbound by physical spaces like classrooms or campuses and time.That sounds like online learning, but it would be beyond the online learning.

Remember the "holodeck?" Originally, it was a set from the television series Star Trek where the crew could engage with different virtual reality environments. It came back into my view with Janet Murray's book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. She considered whether the computer might provide the basis for an expressive narrative form in the way that print technology supported the development of the novel. In the 20th century, film technology supported the development of movies. 

And remember virtual worlds like Second Life and Active Worlds? I knew a number of educators and schools that made a real commitment to its use in education. I don't know of any of them that are still using virtual worlds.

I'm hopeful that VR, AR, or some version of a holodeck or virtual world will some day enhance education, but so far, I'm still operating in Reality Reality.

Do We Still Need to Debunk Online Learning Myths?

robot head

Ever since I started working in the design of online courses and began teaching online, I have heard that online courses are sub-par, difficult to use, boring and ineffective compared to traditional face-to-face courses. There are lousy online courses, and there are lousy face-to-face courses. Research has shown over and over that there is so significant difference in learning in a good online course and a good traditional version of the same course.
But myths still exist and I still see posts about debunking online learning myths. In one post from (an online job search site) they list four "myths." 
Myth #1: Instructor-led training is the “gold standard” for every learner.
Not everyone learns well online, but for some people it is actually a better delivery system. One advantage online is that learners control the pace of learning. That helps slower and faster learners.
Myth #2 Online learning’s primary purpose is to serve scale, not individuals.
Although online platforms are ideal to train a large group of students or workers -hence the growth of MOOCs - individuals can benefit. When it is done well, online learning can be mapped to the learner.  
Myth #3: Online learning creates a lack of accountability for the learner.
Measuring "engagement" has become a focus in the past decade. One kind of accountability is keeping learners engaged. I have always found that I can more easily monitor my online students engagement (readings, discussing, submitting small and large assignments etc.) than keeping track of a class of on-ground students. 
Myth #4: Instructor-led training is more social and better leverages social learning.
As the article notes, "Online learning is optimized for social learning—especially when it matters. In a traditional classroom, learners interact with a handful of peers during discussions and often practice skills in small groups or in pairs. In addition, they may get a smidge of personal interaction with the instructor. In online learning, a cohort of learners can discuss the application of a skill in social threads. When a learner practices a skill, they do so for the rest of the class to observe and provide feedback. Conversely, learners can also see how the other members of their cohort apply the same skills. Rather than seeing a partner demonstrate the behaviors, they see how everyone in the class approaches the skills—allowing them to pick up even more social nuances than they might in a classroom. Rather than a handful of social exchanges, online learners experience dozens and dozens of interactions."

Want to Launch an Online Courses Business?

online learningHaving spent so many years in education, the idea of trying to launch an online courses business  has never really been on my mind. What would you need to start an online courses business?

I would assume that almost all your concerns and needs would parallel the ones we have in education. It came to mind when I saw a post meant for someone who did want to "Launch a Successful Online Courses Business and offers podcast episodes collected about some of those concerns.

In academia, we strive to attract students. A business model would want to attract clients. But most concerns are similar. For example, you would need to create or choose a learning management system. You would need to explore all the online pedagogy that has emerged the past digital decades. For example, online educators have moved towards shorter courses using 
smaller units. One of the podcasts is on Ways You Can Shorten Your Course which includes “chunking.” Chunking means dividing information into small pieces and grouping them together so they can be stored and processed more easily by learners. That is the kind of design and pedagogy that has come from studying how online learners process information. The way the brain observes and processes information is limited by our working memory's limited ability to process large amounts of data at the same time.

Having spent twenty years launching online courses in higher education, I don't envy anyone starting an online business, but you can certainly build on the work that has been done and have an easier time of it.

Making Educational Content Accessible

disability symbols
You might have read earlier this year that the University of California, Berkeley started removing more than 20,000 video and audio lectures from public view that they had made freely available online. Why? It was the result of a Justice Department accessibility order requiring them to make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities.
UC Berkeley was one of the colleges in the forefront of posting to YouTube, iTunes U and their own site. Accessibility for people with a wide variety of disabilities has been an issue with online courses for many years. Mostly, schools have "gotten away with it" when it comes to following requirements that largely came into focus primarily after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990.
It's curious that the Justice Department’s investigation did not look at how Berkeley actually serves students with disabilities, but only the accessibility of content it offers to the public. As a result of this order the university will also require users sign in with University of California credentials to view or listen to them.
This is a scary ruling for other institutions who have been "getting away with it" and now may have to do the same as UC. 
All it took was complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students. The employees said that Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues.
Unfortunately, to remedy these issues any university would need to implement measures that are very expensive to continue to make these resources available to the public. Since they were offered for free, there is really no business model that applies here other than charity. So, the immediate solution was to make them "inaccessible" to everyone by removing them. 
Berkeley can continue to offer massive open online courses on edX. They also plan to create new public content that is accessible.
One concern that many educators have is that this ruling will result in the disappearance of much Open Educational Resources.