Personalized Learning? Unlikely…

The latest buzz-phrase in education is “personalized learning”. Like so many other education bandwagons, it has enjoyed a surge in popularity in university education programs, the provincial Ministry of Education, and recent education conferences. In December of 2010, the BC Ministry of Education and the Premier’s Technology Council [PTC] published its Vision for 21st Century Education, a vision “rooted in personalized learning” and our “knowledge-based society”. Recently, LearnNowBC held its 2011 conference, entitled Personalized Learning for the 21st Century.

So what exactly is “personalized learning”? According to the PTC manifesto, it means that education is individualized according to the needs of each student. Because content is constantly evolving, the PTC asserts, instruction “should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content.” Over time, students will “increasingly access and engage with their own content, at their own pace of learning and take an increasing role in charting a path best suited to those talents, interests and abilities.” With the help of technology, and greater maturity, students “will, with the assistance of teachers and parents, take on more responsibility for choosing their educational path. The student would still have to achieve learning outcomes but focused on the student’s particular interests.”

So here it is. Another major bandwagon that’s going to create a lot of changes in BC. Or will it?

Suffice to say, I remain deeply skeptical of this move into “21st century learning”. After 18 years in education, I have seen a lot of education fads come and go. Many have been riddled with faults, based upon theories of human nature that are well-meaning but have little basis in reality. The ultra-permissiveness of Martin Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage comes to mind, as does the impracticality of portfolio assessment. Other bandwagons may have merit, but die because they require a level of commitment that is hard to find. In my district, for example, much was made of AVID, but it died a slow and miserable death within a few years of its introduction. AVID’s commitment to helping students enter post-secondary education clashed with the anti-intellectualism that was (and is) rampant in certain quarters. Most of our kids don’t go to university, so why bother? More importantly, AVID required a huge investment in resources and timetabling. However, most people with power seemed to want the resources to go elsewhere – to the next shiny new panacea. Our current flavour du jour, “professional learning communities,” is also fading as its novelty declines.

To be sure, some bandwagons persist. The “I” or “incomplete” policy is one of the more unfortunate elements that has survived from the “Year 2000” era. It’s added a layer of complexity for teachers and non-accountability for students, and has done nothing but harden cynicism, particularly at the secondary level. Students who were unwilling to do the work the first time are now entitled to an “I” plan that will allow them to make up the work – or “learning objectives” – at a later date. Of course, those unwilling to do the work the first time rarely do the work at a later date. But “plans for success” are nevertheless developed, discussed, implemented and measured. And most of the work is done by the teacher.

So, will “personalized learning” fade away, or will it persist? To be truthful, I really don’t know, and I have no feeling or intuition regarding its future. It seems like a very flaky concept, but the recent BCPSEA discussions with the Ministry of Education over this very issue make it seem like the government appears serious. The fact that tweeting by the participants in these discussions was banned also makes me wonder.

So let’s say “personalized learning” is indeed a serious contender. What can we make of it? My belief is that there’s a serious “bait and switch” inherent in its premise. The bait is the promise of an education tailored to the specific needs of each student. Wow! This seems fantastic! What incredible service! But then you have to wonder about its practicality. How is a high school teacher with 200+ students going to help each and every student create a personalized learning plan, replete with – in the words of the PTC initiative – “an ‘integrated’, ‘project- based’ or ‘problem-based’ approach to learning”? When will the secondary teacher have time to help create 200 separate projects and problems on an ongoing basis? (Believe me, I’ve done PBL, and it’s incredibly time-consuming if you want rigorous outcomes rather than fun.) What about counseling students as they choose “their educational path”? How is the teacher then going to monitor each student, providing instruction and advice for each step of the problem or project? And, finally, how will he or she provide timely and tailored assessments? 

Only non-educators could think this is practical. Virtually every experienced secondary teacher I know will tell you the same thing: it’s utter madness. An unremitting fantasy. Total cock ‘n bull. There is simply not enough time in the day to personalize the learning for each student. It will never happen.

If (1) your student load is drastically lightened,  (2) your prescribed learning outcomes are reduced without upsetting the post-secondary level and/or inducing a new set of entrance exams, AND (3) you have enthusiastic buy-in from every single student, it might work. But in the existing state of the world, I don’t see those factors materializing.

So what’s going to happen instead? Well, this is where it gets hazy, but I think this is where we’ll see the switch part of the bait and switch. It will look something like this: pre-packaged programs where students in brick and mortar  schools work at their own pace. In other words, students will get correspondence courses, built by distributed learning (DL) teachers,  institutions like Open School or curriculum companies like Pearson. At best you might get worksheet packages photocopied and collated by local teachers. I’ve been told it’s about to happen in some districts; in the nebulously labeled “blended model”, pre-packaged content will be offered to students within regular schools. Depending on the district, students will complete these courses on their own time, or in an “X” or designated “alternate” block, with or without access to an actual teacher. Content from DL teachers will be appropriated and shared throughout certain districts, or students will receive the canned packages that we all know and love from Open School. I’ve heard that some district administrators like this model because it earns their district full funding per block, rather than the less-than-full funding currently received by DL schools. [There’s also a concern that the blended model might encourage schools to override the recent court ruling against the BC government and increase the number of students taught, er, … guided… by each teacher.]

The result, if my prognosis is correct, will take us to a place far different than the world of “personalized learning”. This so-called blended model is, in fact, the epitome of “pre-determined content”. Nothing will be personalized. You’ll do the same Biology 11 course and the same Social Studies 8 course as everyone else. If you’re lucky, you might get a teacher who can modify an assignment or two, but, more than likely, your courses will be more standardized than ever. Talk about bait and switch.

But there are more problems. As a teacher currently working in the DL world, I can tell you that “working at your own pace” is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think it’s for most people. It only really works for those who are highly self-motivated and/or those with a strong support network. It’s also a very lonely way to learn. Working at your own pace, in an asynchronous manner, makes it less likely that you’ll find people with whom you can collaborate. Indeed, in my asynchronous DL school, we have largely given up on the interactive Elluminate vClass program because it’s a synchronous tool; it only works well when a large number of students are available at the same time and working on the same part of the course. In our asynchronous, “anytime, anywhere” environment, it’s a largely irrelevant technology. Finally, these blended courses will likely be housed in some form of electronic Learning Management System, like Moodle, Blackboard or D2L. Any desire to change or modify a course will require time as well as the skills necessary to work with the LMS. At that point, educators in regular schools will find out what I learned years ago: distributed learning, if done properly, takes an incredible amount of time, effort and training. It’s not much cheaper (if done properly) than traditional “brick and mortar” education.

So, in the coming months, the question is clear: what does the government really mean by personalized learning? I think we need to prepare ourselves for a huge disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

Posted by Colin Welch at 7:06 PM
Edited on: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 6:34 PM


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