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Can personalization be commercialized?

If there was an overriding theme to this year's ISTE conference (other than the right iPad app will save the whales, improve your love life, and eliminate toe fungus), it was all about personalizing education - and that you need a big-ass vendor to sell you an expensive product to do so. "Personalization" was in a large percentage of vendor pitches for a variety of products, but mostly for some kind of computerized learning management system.

But I was hearing another set of voices as well, those of passionate individuals who want to personalize education by giving students choices, making learning relevant, and paying as much attention to dispositions as to academic skills. Here the technology was used to enable student access to information of individual interest, to create portfolios of published work, and to enable small group collaboration and communication.

Add these terms to differentiated instruction, flipped classrooms, etc. and the water gets pretty murky.

Other writers have set out to define terms associated with non-whole group instruction. Some, including Barbara Bray, have designed extensive comparisons. I'd more or less dismissed these tables as semantic nitpicking, but the conversations I heard at ISTE made me re-evaluate. So this is my quick n' dirty definitions of a few terms as this simple mind understands them:

  • Differentiated instruction: A class is sorted into small groups by rough ability levels determined by the classroom teacher. Each group is given separate resources, activities, and goals appropriate for its members' abilities. The teacher works with small groups in rotation or works primarily with the lowest performing group. Technology is used to locate and provide access to materials and activities at varying degrees of difficulty. All students have the same learning outcomes.
  • Individualized learning: Each student uses a computerized program that breaks low-level learning tasks into small objectives. Students receive lessons and are given ongoing assessments that determine if they move forward or are to be given another round of lessons. All students have the same learning outcomes and students work alone at workstations. Not exactly sure what the teacher's role is here - to hand out bathroom passes to the 80 students in her lab?
  • Personalized learning: Each student, in direct consultation with his/her teacher, sets both areas of study and learning outcomes based on interest and ability. The work is project or problem-based with authentic assessment tools describing mastery of work. Work habits, attitudes, organization, and other dispositions are regarded as important elements of such learning. 

In expressing this dichotomy with Hank Thiele over in Illinois, he suggest that all three types of non-whole group instruction may have a role to play in today's best schools. Get the low-level skills of punctuation, math facts, etc., out of the way quickly and effectively using a individualized learning computer program, leaving time for the important personalized education all kids should be receiving.

I do know this: if a vendor claims its product "personalizes" the learning experiences, be cautious and ask exactly what that means. Treating everyone pretty much the same way, holding everyone to the same set of learning outcomes, and allowing no choices, is a pretty strange way of "personalizing" anything.

See also: Three futures: Skinner Elementary, Dewey High School, and Duncan Middle School.

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