Reflections on the EdWeek PL Summit

The Education Week Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of about 600 teachers on personalized learning issues. On November 21, 2019, Dria Setter and Kate Sommerville were guests in an online Personalized Learning Summit hosted by EdWeek, which used the survey results as a starting point and examined teacher perspectives on various personalized learning topics. Along with Alyson Klein, assistant editor of EdWeek, and Sterling Lloyd, director of the Education Week Research Center, Dria and Kate tackled questions from online participants around the world. Below are their reflections on the event.

The flurry of questions and responses popping up in the discussion thread were invigorating!  As we reviewed and answered the questions from educators across the country and around the world, it was evident the learner-centered movement is in full swing. As with any movement, there were questions, inquiries, and concerns spilling across the screen. As quick as we could answer, another response or question was posted. What a great opportunity to communicate with other educators about the work that is currently happening in our field.

Throughout the 90 minutes, several questions pointed to the perceived connection between technology and personalized learning. In fact, Lloyd stated, “Some of teachers’ biggest concerns with personalized learning include kids spending too much time on screens and that using technology for personalized learning could mean students are working alone too often.”

Interestingly enough, this is one of the common misconceptions we encounter in our work. The implementation of personalized learning often comes hand-in-hand with a technology initiative or implementation of 1:1 devices in a district or school and therefore, the assumption is that the two rely on one another for success. While technology definitely can provide support for learner-centered practices, it is not required. In fact, there are so many elements of personalized learning that do better without technology. Personalized learning is not and should not be viewed as a technology initiative. It is a means to support learners. Technology allows for transformation of learning which can enhance, deepen, or accelerate understanding of content. By shifting the use of technology, learners can also focus on creation through technology tools in addition to consumption. Learners can build a technology toolbox to utilize when demonstrating understanding of learning. This is true in all learning environments, not just those deemed a “personalized learning” environment.

As we reflect on our learner-centered framework, the Honeycomb Model, successful implementation relies heavily on personal interaction and human connection. A successful learner-centered environment thrives on the development of a community of learners. Many educators that we work with identify a fundamental desire to create meaningful relationships with their learners; work together with and set their learners up for success. Without that element of human connection, this can be difficult. 

When looking specifically at some of the elements contained in the Relationships and Roles layer, things like Learner Independence, Co-designers of Learning, and Learner as a Resource can be much more successful when face-to-face interaction is part of the process.

While some might say learner independence can be demonstrated when a learner uses a computer on his or her own to complete a playlist independently, the foundational skills need to be developed first in order for this to happen. A student needs to understand more about him or herself as a learner:

  • What skills do they have? 
  • What dispositions do they have? 
  • How do they want to grow or develop as a learner?  

By connecting with an educator to have meaningful dialogue, only then can both the learner and the educator move forward to co-design learning opportunities, as the learner has begun to build his or her independence. In addition, as a student explores who they are as a learner, they can embody that element of Learner as a Resource, recognizing the essential skills needed to dialogue with their peers or asking questions of others about the learning taking place around them.

Personalized learning is a heutagogy. It’s about helping learners self-discover and self-determine what is important to them based on their strengths, needs, or areas for growth. This type of instructional approach puts the emphasis on learner agency, and the development of autonomy and a learner’s capacity and drive to want to learn for the life they are living and leading. Addressing the “how” of the work is always a big question for educators, which is why many may jump to the use of technology. In the end, technology provides a great place to house information, consume new content, create content to share with others, and connect with a virtual audience, among other things. But, when looking at the fundamentals of a learner-centered environment, it’s the people, relationships, and connections with humans that matter, and ultimately, make the environment as successful as it can be.

Personalized learning is more of a shift in mindset than the use of technology or a given set of techniques. It is about addressing your beliefs and assumptions around education as we know it. Good teachers personalize without even realizing they are doing it. If you are looking for specific strategies to support learner-centered practices, it can be anything from developing an environment that allows for increased agency and autonomy to building a bridge between the development of the academic learning outcomes and essential skills needed to be successful in life. When educators develop learning experiences for students that help them develop these skills and dispositions, they are moving beyond just individualizing instruction using a technology platform. They are supporting the learner in ways that will provide success long beyond that school day.