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When Buzzwords Get Muddy: Defining 'Personalized Learning'

By Shawn Rubin

Personalized learning—as a turn of phrase, a philosophy, and an ambition for our students—is gaining momentum nationwide. But as more and more reformers, companies, and leaders get on board with the idea of personalizing learning, there’s a lurking question around proof of concept: is this thing we call personalized learning actually happening in real classrooms? Has anyone figured out what it means to personalize to students from different backgrounds?

As it turns out, it is indeed happening, but in admittedly discrete pockets. There are great examples of schools across the country that are turning personalized learning into a reality—and more importantly, defining what it means to them.

For many of us in the education space, we are tired of personalized and blended learning being a vague concept, rather than a set of clear tactics that teachers and principals can actually implement. At Highlander Institute, we wanted to hear it straight from the proverbial “horse’s mouth.” So, in planning our April 2nd Blended and Personalized Learning Conference in collaboration with the Christensen Institute, we recognized three big steps that are non-negotiables when it comes to the act of defining personalized learning.

Talk to a Range of People in Education - Beyond Your Circle

We’ve recruited some of the top blended and personalized learning implementers across the country who are translating big ideas into action: that is, actual boots on the ground representatives who can share success stories and mistakes.

By sharing these thoughts and stories, we as an education community can start to tease out the most promising practices and the most chronic challenges we’re confronted with when attempting to define and implement personalized learning. Reexamining current definitions in this process will also help us sharpen our understanding of what personalized learning can and should look like for students in classrooms.

Witness Multiple Versions of Personalized Learning - in Action

In all cases, we should showcase schools and classrooms that are seeing growth - whether that growth is in alternate metrics like the behavior change of students and adults, or in tangible test score growth that can be attributed to purposeful decisions and implementation. Ironically however, given how distributed these examples are, it’s nearly impossible for the very educators we’re asking to implement personalized learning to actually get around to visit promising models.

Hence, it was important to us that we allow our attendees to essentially do site visits into more than 15 different personalized learning environments from one single conference venue. Crucially, these schools are not just models to help us paint a general picture of a new approach to teaching and learning. In fact, they are the laboratories developing the day-to-day tactics of delivering personalized learning.

Consider the Intersection of Personalized Learning and Equity

In addition to focusing on tactics and modeling personalized learning, educational equity should always play into the theme.

The blended and personalized learning movement is not doing enough to address equity and the growing achievement gap in this country. Students of color, students in poverty, students in crumbling urban schools or in rural environments are all struggling with challenges that go deeper than the path and pace at which they learn.

Traditionally, we avoid these conversations when we come together for our conferences and convenings. Perhaps we know that these are not the types of problems that bandwidth, software and devices alone can solve. Maybe we fear that a cursory attempt at discussing poverty and race during a 75 minute conference session is worse than just ignoring it all together. Or, perhaps it’s just easier to share an app, explain a framework, or discuss professional development than it is to dissect the risks and challenges of scaling personalized learning with our most struggling students.

At the risk of alienating session attendees, too many conferences build sessions that skirt the unique challenges facing educators who work in high minority and high poverty schools and districts. Or, session leaders over-generalize personalized learning solutions without acknowledging that these solutions would need to be retooled for success in our poorest communities.

We are encouraged to showcase successful schools and districts that we can learn from as we work to make our own blended and personalized learning environments successful for all. We are hoping that this conference serves as a new medium for people to address several of these previously ignored topics.

There’s a Lot of Work to Be Done

You may read about amazing blended learning and personalized learning implementers all the time in blogs like Getting Smart, EdWeek, or right here in EdSurge - wouldn’t it be nice to have one day that was designed specifically for you to learn from and with these leaders, iterating on their models to figure out which parts could be replicable to your situation?

We are eager to push the boundaries of how personalized a conference can get, but we’ll need your feedback to take our ideas even further - and your ideas as to how we better define “personalized learning.”

Shawn Rubin (@ShawnCRubin) is the Director of Blended Learning at the Highlander Institute in Providence, RI, and also the co-founder and CEO of Metryx.


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