As a computer lab teacher in an elementary school, I loved my job. I liked the challenge of trying new things and wasn't afraid to be just a bare step ahead of my students. Sure, some things were duds, but the payoff was watching students getting engaged in something, then asking for more. So, I was caught by surprise a few weeks ago when, during a presentation at an edtech conference, I found myself a little lost.
The title of the workshop was "Bringing Personalized Learning to your Classroom." And for 30 minutes, we received dozens of fantastic resources, apps, and websites. But halfway through, I realized I wasn't sure what "personalized learning" meant. Not only did the presenter not define or explain the term, but no one asked. Suddenly, "Mr. Cutting Edge EdTech Guru from Bella Vista Elementary" felt a little behind the times, or left out of the clubhouse for not knowing the secret handshake. After thinking through this disconcerting experience, three key things occurred to me, which I share here for others who may feel similarly out of step.
1. It’s OK not to know.
How many times have I told my students, "There are no dumb questions," or "Not knowing is the first step to learning"? You may have other ways of saying it. It's one thing to say, another to practice. The feeling of not understanding something isn't a pleasant one. If it were, then there would be no incentive to change our thinking. In the margins of my notepad, I wrote "PERSONALIZED LEARNING" in big bold ink with multiple question marks and doodled stars all around it. That is my shorthand for "There’s something here I need to find out more about later." The note allowed me to cognitively deep-freeze my confusion and bring my focus back to the presentation, knowing that there would be time after the presentation to research what "personalized learning" means.
2. No one really knows.
Okay, that’s not strictly true. There are lots of smart people who have done lots of thinking, writing, and talking about personalized learning. But when I searched the Web and listened to my colleagues, I discovered that unlike for "gravity" or "solar system," there is no one definition for "personalized learning." There are overlapping general understandings, but there is no agreement on exactly what it means. Why? Because it’s still in the process of being defined.
3. Understanding comes through conversation.
And so, how does a buzzword go from being insider lingo to something we all understand? I think it happens through the conversations we have with each other when we ask, “What does this mean for you?" and "What does this look like in your classroom?” In this era dominated by assessment results and standards-focused lesson planning, deep discussions about new movements and practices can feel like a luxury we don’t have time for. But I would argue that in order to understand each other, in order to move forward purposefully and effectively, we have no other choice but to hash this out, make meaning for ourselves, and become part of the ongoing living conversation.
The process of meaning making, like any other process, has to begin somewhere. And so I'll offer these initial working definitions for some of the most common terms educators, researchers, and developers are using to describe the shifts and changes that technology offers. These personal definitions of mine may not be 100% accurate, but I offer them here as a place from which to begin.
-- Blended Learning: A blended learning classroom or school is one in which technology is blended in with traditional teaching and instruction. This is usually accomplished through a daily or weekly rotation through stations or activities, of which at least one involves using a device. One of the advantages of blended learning is the ability for the teacher to work with small groups of students who have similar needs. When students are on a device, they are practicing or applying skills and concepts that are taught, reviewed, or reinforced in the small group. Ideally, the students are working with an app or program that tracks their progress and allows the teacher to get on-the-spot data, which can be used to plan face-to-face instruction.
-- Personalized Learning: Personalized learning occurs when each student is getting the exact skills, strategies, or concepts they need when they need it. Students in a personalized learning environment are allowed to learn at their own pace, and move on to new concepts only after demonstrating mastery. Mastery, in this case, means not only knowing how to do something, but also knowing how and when to apply the skill. Unlike blended learning, the idea of personalized learning predates the digital revolution and can be done without any devices at all. According to Wikipedia, the idea of personalized learning can be traced all the way back to the 19th century. But technology provides digital platforms and tools that allow for more precise and explicit learning paths, and offer immediate feedback to guide each student.
-- Flipped Learning: Flipped learning has nothing to do with circus arts, but instead has to do with flipping homework and schoolwork. Traditionally, a student learns in school and practices what they've learned at home. In a flipped classroom, the student does the initial learning at home through websites, videos, and reading. The student then comes to school with questions and difficulties that the teacher can address right then and there. In addition to clarifying, the teacher can also extend what the students learned, and/or provide an experience that requires the students to apply what they learned about at home. However it's used, the idea of flipped learning is to maximize the time students spend in the classroom by relegating individual learning to the hours when they aren't together and the teacher isn't there.
-- Connected Learning: Connected learning refers to connecting the students’ lives inside the classroom with their lives outside the classroom. This may or may not involve technology. For instance, it's been used to describe bringing their experiences with video gaming to the classroom by using the games as a vehicle for learning about game design and coding. But connected learning can also be connecting the classroom to the larger world in the form of mentorship with adults outside of the school setting, or inducing and promoting change through social media. In both cases, the students engage with others in real-world learning opportunities.
-- BYOD/BYOT: Unlike the previous definitions, which seek to define specific pedagogies, BYOD/BYOT is a strategy to maximize technology resources. Bring Your Own Device (Technology) programs allow students to bring cell phones, laptops, and tablets into the classroom for the purposes of learning. The main advantage of this is to make 1-to-1 technology possible by passing the expense of purchasing the devices onto the students and their families.