By Jim Rickabaugh, Ph.D.
The previous issue of our newsletter presented the question of whether personalized learning requires a deep, rich profile of the learner to facilitate genuine customization. While the responses were not numerous, one thing is clear. There are many popular definitions of personalized learning in the literature and among people who are interested in improving learning opportunities for students.
Some who use the term personalization are focused on providing better course selection and planning for students. Others intend to offer more choices and options from which learners can select. Still others want teachers to be more responsive to learner interactions, progress and behaviors, differentiating instruction in response to student needs within the curriculum and learning standards toward which they are moving their classes.
Certainly, all of these approaches and others move instruction in a direction that is more responsive to student learning needs and preferences than historically has been available. But, true personalization moves beyond both individualized learning and differentiated instruction.
In a personalized learning environment, students not only have better course selection and planning, but a path and plan that responds to learners as they develop. Clear, current information regarding the specific needs, interests, characteristics, progress and goals of the learner are used to inform choices in the student’s learning plan, while offering a greater variety of choices. The standardized structure currently in place changes – students may not be grouped within age bands, new roles for teachers emerge, therefore lessening the differentiation burden of one person, and new assessment tools create a learning context driven by learner’s needs, capacities, and characteristics.
True personalized learning and a customized learning environment are only possible when the learner and learner voice are the key criteria for the instructional strategies selected, the way students are grouped, the specific learning progressions that are followed and the structure that is put in place to support the learner. A deep, rich profile of the learner includes an understanding of the learner’s strengths, current level of learning and skill development, and preferred learning modalities. The particular advantage offered by a rich, comprehensive picture of the learner that can be captured in a learner profile is that it can drive the construction of a unique, customized learning path.
Without the presence of a quality, comprehensive learning plan, we risk personalization being reduced to more choices, ad hoc adjustments and awkward structural modifications to approximate true personalization. Personalization that does not rely on a learner profile is like shopping for clothes without knowing the size and taste of the person for whom we are shopping. We may occasionally get it right, but more by chance than design.