Personalized Learning Online

Personalized Learning Online: Challenges for Learning and Teaching
David L. Stoloff, Professor, Eastern Connecticut State University,

One vision of the future of learning from IBM –

In less than 100 seconds, the producers of an IBM short video envision classrooms within which instruction is tailored for the skills, learning styles, and aspirations of individual students.  They close with the query –

“Isn’t learning what’s education is all about?”

In the National Education Technology Plan 2010, also known as Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology, the authors from the US Department of Education (2010) defined personalization as “instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary (so personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization)” (page 12).

The Gilbert Report (2012) sponsored by the United Kingdom Department for Education and Skills claims that “personalisation is a matter of moral purpose and social justice: pupils from the most is advantaged groups are the least likely to achieve well and participate in higher levels of education or training. Personalisation also reflects wider changes in society, which are likely to continue at an increasing rate. Together, these present the education system with its most acute challenges. They mean that expectations of what all children and young people could and should achieve must be raised, along with schools’ capacity to ensure that outcomes for pupils match those expectations” (page 7).  Wolfe, Steinberg, and Hoffman (2013) further suggests that educational technology may liberate the individual to learn anytime and anywhere, not only in the classroom.

Personalized learning, empowered by technology, is seen as an educated hope, “a subversive force when it pluralizes politics by opening up a space for dissent, making authority accountable, and becoming an activating presence in promoting social transformation” (Giroux, 2004).   This discussion will also envision personalized learning within a framework described by Terry (1997), “that the continuation and development of the individual and societal learning processes which will transform our culture and enable it to overcome the current crisis without losing sight of what has already been achieved by modernity can only be accomplished by utilising the concept of discourse ethics and of communicative action outlined by Habermas.”

When these themes converge, the future of learning, education, and society become dynamic and visionary.  The historic and philosophical roots of personalized learning, before the pervasive electronic technology of today that promises to accelerate the pace of personalization in a technocratic ecology, and the subversive hopes of educational technology in the future is discussed in this web-essay. The headwaters of this river of personalized learning, flowing to a confluence with technology, are nurtured by the brainstorming of influential social educational leaders, including Dewey, Freire, and Illich. The flow of personalized learning is also nurtured by philosophers of self-actualization, including Bloom, Rogers, Gardner, and Hoz, and others.

Within the context of this confluence of personalized learning and technology, we will explore the tensions between the factory model of schooling and the outsourcing of information dissemination from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. These rapids in the confluence will be illustrated by the author’s experiences as a consultant on a blended learning project in an urban school district in New England. Turbulence caused by challenges in trust over the distribution of technological tools, the participation of parents and other community members in a wider learning community plugged into the school portal, and the changing natures of learners and teachers will be discussed within this inner city context. My personal observations of a research study on changes in student engagement in learning resulting from a blended learning project in the district will also be described here.

Personalized Learning over Time

The tensions between individual and group learning within formal, standardized educational settings have existed as recurring themes as long as there have been formal educational settings.  As described by Davis (2012), John Dewey’s time displayed many of the same tensions we find today and Dewey responded similarly.  In The Child and the Curriculum, Dewey (1902) characterizes two schools of thought about schooling, a school that focuses on the child and a school that focuses on the curriculum.  He clearly supports the child whose “present powers which are to assert themselves; his (sic) present capacities are to be exercised; his (sic) present attitudes which are to be realized” (Dewey, 1902, p. 40).

Collins & Halverson (2009) compare the changes in learning and schooling during 3 learning eras – learning by apprenticeship, schooling, and lifelong learning.   Each era had its own characteristics:

Changes in Learning as suggested by Collins & Halverson (2009)
Apprenticeship era Schooling era Lifelong Learning era
Responsibility Parents The State Parents and then the individual learner
Content Practical Skills Basic Skills and Disciplinary Knowledge Generic Skills and Learning to Learn
Pedagogy Apprenticeship Didacticism Interaction
Assessment Observation Testing Embedded Assessment
Location centered in the home centered in the school centered in multiple venues
Culture adult culture peer culture mixed-age culture
Relationships personal bonds authority figures computer-mediated interaction

An UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE) Policy Brief on Personalized Learning (UNESCO, 2012) traces this personalization of education to the Dalton Plan developed by Helen Parkhurst.  Evelyn Dewey (1921), in her review of the Dalton Laboratory Plans indicates that the needs of education for “the increase in scientific knowledge, the resulting industrial system, and a democratic form of government” (page 159) may be met through the Plan’s “scheme for a material rearrangement of schools that permits the powers and abilities of the individual pupil to develop… it [the Plan] could be used as a device to enable an old curriculum to function as efficiently as possible or as a convenient organization for radical departures from the conventional way” (Dewey, 1921, page 165). Dewey builds here on concepts she explored with John Dewey in Schools of Tomorrow (1915) on the applications of the natural development of the child, also discussed earlier by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

UNESCO (2012) also indicates that Victor Garcìa Hoz was the first to coin the term of ‘personalization’ in the context of educational science in the 1970s.  His La práctica de la educación personalizada includes a discussion of technological applications in personalized learning.  He outlines four characteristics of personalized education – it needs to be integrador y abierto (integrative and open), reflexivo y creador (reflective and creative), singularizador y convivencial (individual and coexistent), and optimista (optimistic) (page 30).

Within personalized learning, there is a tension between focusing on the individual, the individual’s group, and the curriculum.  In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1971), commented that “I engage in dialogue not necessarily because I like the other person. I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing” (Freire (1971) as cited by Macedo (2011).

Illich (1971) in Deschooling Society states that “a good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known”.

Weibell (2011) in an analysis of “7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced blended learning environment” cites Carl Rogers in Freedom to Learn describing “five defining elements of significant or experiential learning:

  1. It has a quality of personal involvement – Significant learning has a quality of personal involvement in which “the whole person in both his feeling and cognitive aspects [is] in the learning event” (p. 5).
  2. It is self-initiated – “Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within” (p. 5).
  3. It is pervasive – Significant learning “makes a difference in the behavior, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner” (p. 5).
  4. It is evaluated by the learner – The learner knows “whether it is meeting his need, whether it leads toward what he wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance he is experiencing” (p. 5).
  5. Its essence is meaning – “When such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience” (p. 5).”

Bloom (1984) explored ways of personalizing learning within a tutoring model.  He found that students receiving tutoring, combined with regular formative assessment and corrective instruction, learned significantly more than students in a control group that received group instruction only.  VanderVeen (2014) concludes that the difference in learning was the result of personalization, which he defines as ”differentiating instruction and providing regular corrective feedback based on the needs of each student. This included personalizing both path and pace–identifying and addressing missing prerequisite knowledge, and spending more time where necessary to ensure students achieved mastery of topics before moving on.”

Gardner (2009) also discussed personalized learning.  He predicts that “now for the first time it is possible to individualize education — to teach each person what he or she needs and wants to know in ways that are most comfortable and most efficient, producing a qualitative spurt in educational effectiveness…. Well-programmed computers — whether in the form of personal computers or hand-held devices — are becoming the vehicles of choice. They will offer many ways to master materials. Students (or their teachers, parents, or coaches) will choose the optimal ways of presenting the materials. Appropriate tools for assessment will be implemented. And best of all, computers are infinitely patient and flexible. If a promising approach does not work the first time, it can be repeated, and if it continues to fail, other options will be readily available. … According to the analysis of business expert Clayton Christensen, personalized education is likely to begin outside formal school through a combination of entrepreneurial vendors on the one hand and ambitious students and parents on the other. Once far more efficient and effective education has been modeled in homes and clubs, those schools, communities, and/or societies that have the ambition, the means, and the willingness to take risks will follow suit. I’d bet on Singapore or Sweden before wagering on U.S. public schools.”

Personalized Learning in the Present

I had the opportunity of serving as an educational consultant for a blended learning project in high schools in an urban school district in Connecticut.  Blended learning is an instructional strategy that integrates educational technology within a formal school setting.  The Clayton Christensen Institute (2013) indicates that “blended learning is not the same as technology-rich instruction. It goes beyond one-to-one computers and high-tech gadgets. Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, meaning increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of his or her learning.

The definition of blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:

at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;

at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;

and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”

The initial phases of the project involved exploring the research on blended learning, completing a survey of district teachers for a scan on the uses of technology in teaching and learning in the district, selecting a computer platform for project students and teachers, and developing a professional learning community within the district and among other educators in other urban districts within a regional foundation-funded project.  During the year-long project, there seemed to be a movement from an emphasis on blended learning to the development of initiatives for public understanding and support for personalized learning.

During the study, I developed a blog site on blended learning in Connecticut.  This website included project documents, reviews of influential texts, and a monthly list of interesting articles selected from several nearly daily e-newsletters such as Tech & Learning, SmartBrief on EdTech, EduWire Daily Update, ASCD SmartBrief, MediaSmarts, and Government Technology [].  I also participated in the collection and analysis of the environmental scan of technology in teaching and learning in the district, consulted within the professional learning communities among the project teachers and in the a superintendent’s work group composed of stakeholders from the community, observed teaching and learning among project students and teachers, and participated in regional conferences organized by the foundation supporting the project.

The environmental scan within the district found that teachers made use of technology-based and/or online resources in the classroom for presenting information, practicing skills and concepts, and assessing student learning in the classroom.  There were a variety of learning tools used in the schools, with some of the more popular were MAP and NWEA for assessment and Waterford, Edmodo, and Google for other applications.  Less than half of the respondents made use of a computer lab.  The respondents reported that less than half of their students made use of mobile devices in their classrooms or technology-based and/or online resources for learning outside of the school, at home, or in community-based organizations and libraries.

The respondents perceived that the strengths of blended learning include the ability to differentiate instruction, students can learn at their own pace, student engagement, ability to deliver instruction via diverse modalities, offer real life applications, and practice in 21st century skills.  The respondents indicated that weaknesses include lack of technology in the schools, lack of access to technology at home, classroom management, infrastructure, and lack of professional development.  Opportunities for blended learning include similarity to college courses, building career skills, building 21st century skills, assisting the college application process, building technology skills, increasing self-sufficiency, and accessing college-level courses.  Threats include limited technology in the schools, teacher knowledge/training to use technology, teacher ability to supervise, lack of equitable access at home, infrastructure, and student abuse of technology/tools.

Students’ responses to the applications of blended learning were revealing during the focus groups.  On career and college readiness, one student commented –

  • “For me, the Chromebooks provide a more college type atmosphere, because, when you’re learning, most of the learning is on you and not the teacher. Before, with the teacher, you’d be having a conversation, having the group discussion in class about the problem at hand. But now, with the Chromebooks, you have to get the information online, then interpret the information in the ways that you feel are best. You have to get the information that you feel is the important information from the article and it’s not the teacher telling you what’s important… In that aspect, [blended learning] is getting you more college ready.”

Another added that

  • “We all have internships, and in our internships you’re using the company email, and your personal email is to be left for personal things. I think that blended learning helps us to recognize what is professional and what isn’t—with technology in mind. Starting this now prepares you more for college, which in turn prepares you for a career.”

Students commented on the shifting of responsibility for learning from the teacher to the students –

  • “There’s no excuse that I couldn’t do my homework or project because the teacher is on Google Docs. They can see what time you did [your assignment], what time you wrote the document. Then, if you say you didn’t have time, they can go back and see what did you do for that day
  •  “Before, the teacher had the biggest part to do in the educating, but now that role is falling on me as a student. It basically changed the way that I had been taught for all of my life.

Students appreciated the use of the portal –

  • “the portal I think is the best resource that we have used so far. When it comes to having our classes in one place, that’s where you go. On the portal I have my U.S. history class, my English class, Design, Biology—all my classes in one place and the calendar where I can view each assignment and its due date.”
  • “I have [contacted my teachers and fellow classmates from home] on multiple occasions, just to clarify minor things or to actually start, almost a conversation about a topic that I don’t quite grasp, or something similar.”

Students were also interested to make use of more technology for learning in the future.

  • We’re pretty much in the age of technology. We all have tablets, smartphones, and, in this day and age, I really think that the school system should take advantage of that. They should integrate technology and learning. From what I’ve seen [this integration] really has helped me master the material that I’m learning in a more convenient way. Because I’m used to using technology on a day to day basis, using tech. in class makes it easier for me to learn.”

Personalized Learning in the Future

As the study of blended learning in urban high schools closed, I shared with the project leaders these recommendations for the future of the project:

Developing school portals

It would be good if a team of teachers, students, and parents might convene to review personalized learning systems and to select models for use in their schools and throughout the district. Such systems would include community (students, teachers, school administration, parents, community members) uses of a common portal that would include both individual and community information. Students would be able to make use of this portal to preview topics to be discussed in all of their classes for the following days and weeks, their own progress in their individual educational plans, community events, and opportunities for college and career readiness. Teachers would use the portal for their classes’ gradebooks, their syllabi for the school terms, and to showcase model student projects. They would also be able to share individual student progress with parents. School administrators would be able to make use of the portal to illustrate school activities and events, survey school learnings, and get a sense of student progress and professional development. For parents and the community, the portal would serve as a symbol of pride in student achievement and community development and as a motivator for developing stronger school-community engagement and connections.

Developing student electronic portfolios

The project might enhance on efforts to make use of student electronic portfolios for formative and summative assessment, to expand on student success plans. Students might be able to reflect on their own personal college and career readiness and professional and social development by comparing their early documentation of learning with their later years. Teachers might be able to refine curriculum based on these student documents. School administrators might lead discussion on program development after reviewing the successful elements of learning illustrated in these student portfolios. The community would gain a sense of the outcomes of learning and teaching and of experiences in the school by reviewing these portfolios.

Developing communities of learners

The project might continue with its efforts to develop professional learning communities by among teachers, students, administrators, and community members. Community learning groups might seek ways to provide learning resources inside and outside the school. Students and community members who do not have their own personal learning tools might be encouraged to make use of the tools available in the school and in other community locations. These learning communities might be formed to discuss and suggest policy to develop group plans to enhance the entire school community.

After reading daily emailed educational technology e-newsletters for more than a year, I also followed trends.  For example, it was interesting to follow the rise and decline of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Recently, writers have begun to differentiate among MOOCs for specific purposes.  Bates (October 13, 2014) compares xMOOCs and cMOOCs.  xMOOCs, currently the most common MOOCs, “use a teaching model focused on the transmission of information, with high quality content delivery, computer-marked assessment (mainly for student feedback purposes), and automation of all key transactions between participants and the learning platform. There is almost no direct interaction between an individual participant and the instructor responsible for the course.”  cMOOCs “place heavy emphasis on networking and in particular on strong content contributions from the participants themselves….learning results not from the transmission of information from an expert to novices, as in xMOOCs, but from sharing of knowledge between participants.”

We have come full circle with this description of cMOOCs.  If learning is what education is all about and learning is either based on individual activity within a social group, then personalized learning will need to accommodate the path and pace of individuals, but allow for time for social interactions and collaborative efforts.  Only then will personalized learning fulfill as the Gilbert Report (2012) suggests its “moral purpose and social justice”.


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Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved from

Wolfe, R. E., Steinberg, A., and Hoffman, N, editors (2013).  Anytime, anywhere: Student-centered learning for schools and teachers.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.


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