Personalized Learning Explainer: Teaching to the Back Row

Phil and I are pleased to share our first animated explainer on personalized learning:

If it feels like a commercial that could have been produced by a textbook publisher or ed tech vendor, that is entirely intentional. We hope that they will actively promote this video (and the successor that we will be publishing in the next couple of weeks). We are giving them tools they will (hopefully) want to use that move the focus away from product bells and whistles and toward teaching challenges. This attempt at jujitsu is worth some unpacking.

As we’ve written about both here, there, and everywhere,  the term “personalized learning” is a marketing phrase that doesn’t seem to have a specific meaning as it is popularly used. It is associated with bundles of content that are typically called courseware that may or may not have certain kinds of features like learning analytics or adaptive learning. Note those two feature categories are themselves both so broad that they include capabilities that work and are used completely differently from each other. “Personalized learning” is remarkably devoid of semantic specificity even for a marketing term. As a result, the vendors themselves often don’t know how to talk about the value of the products beyond throwing around the slogan and maybe tossing in words like “efficacy” and “outcomes.” This is exactly the sort of solution-in-search-of-a-problem problem that leads us down the road to horror shows like “robot tutors in the sky that can semi-read your mind.”

But while the vendors may be confused about the value they provide, the teachers who make use of these products are not. When we go out into classrooms and see how products that have been labeled “personalized learning” are used in context, we find common, reality-grounded themes about best teaching practices. These practices are supported by the product capabilities that attach to the term “personalized learning” but they are independent from those capabilities. They can be achieved in different ways, with or without fancy products. Viewed through the lens of lived practice, the term “personalized learning” means something like differentiated instruction writ large with the assistance of pedagogical productivity tools.

Here’s a great example ((Hat tip to Laura Gibbs for the reference to Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s wonderful post.)) of personalized learning practice that requires nothing fancier than a discussion board and maybe a video or image or two:

The nature of online classes varies dramatically, much like face-to-face classes. But, in both scenarios, the teacher matters and the teaching matters. When an online class is taught by an engaged and empathetic instructor who seeks to be aware of the needs of her students, the asynchronous nature of online learning may become a benefit to students, not a disadvantage. This is contingent upon the design of the course, which is where instructional designers or “learning engineers” can play an important role.  Many instructors, however, play both roles — and those who do are often the professors who experience deep transformations in their face-to-face classes as a result of what they learned from teaching online.

Learning is a process that unfolds over time. In a face-to-face class, the actions in a classroom are a valuable part of that learning, but students don’t instantly “learn” upon receipt of instruction. This is something that teaching online can help faculty to recognize and lead them to enhancing their face-to-face instruction with opportunities for students to interact and reflect online between class sessions. An online class that is designed with scaffolded opportunities for students engage in low stake, formative assessments provides learners with an environment that can align more closely with the rhythm of their learning. The rhythm of learning is highly variable and this is another reason why online classes can be so empowering for students, especially those who feel left out and disengaged in traditional instructional settings. The opportunity to engage with media in a variety of modalities multiple times, to read or listen to peer conversations more than once, the ability to revise one’s thoughts over time by adding on to a conversation, engage with diverse opinions and perspectives from individuals beyond the course roster — these are stunning qualities of online learning that benefit students.

Phil and I want the phrase “personalized learning” to evoke this kind of course design just as easily as it does vendor-supplied adaptive learning and learning analytics products. We have produced and will continue to produce long-form pieces on this topic. But long-form only reaches people who are already interested enough to read (or view) it. We also want to produce short-form pieces that reach a broader audience. We want to frame up early discussions that lead to better places than “robot tutor in the sky.”

In the process, we are also trying to learn about the ways in which short-form works differently from long-form. From an academic perspective, “explainer” is almost inevitably a misnomer for a two-minute animation aimed at a mass audience. The verb “to problemetize” was coined for a reason. At best, short pieces like ours can be “provokers.” Or, to draw on the language of pedagogy, discussion prompts. For example, we frame personalized learning as “a set of ideas for solving [the] problem” of teachers being overloaded with work and not having enough time to give their students individual attention. That is a feature, not a bug. By framing it this way, we hope to open the door to questions like the following:

  • Why are faculty so overworked that “being the kind of teacher that [they] want to be gets harder and harder”?
  • How does the increasing diversity of our student population make good teaching more challenging and what is the best approach to meeting that challenge?
  • Are we providing faculty with the right support, incentives, and training to promote good teaching?
  • When is personalized learning good teaching practice and when is it cover for bad labor policy?
  • How can technology help us increase access to education without hurting quality and what are the limits of that capacity?

A two-minute animation can’t answer or even ask these questions. What it can do is change the rhetorical space, creating room for them to be asked. By changing the industry’s framing of its value proposition, maybe we can catalyze converations we should be having about the context in which that value is realized.

In the second explainer, we will be providing an overview of some of the pedagogical methods that we associate with personalized learning.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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