Defining a changing landscape: Can our language keep up with our learning models?

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by Elizabeth LeBlanc & Christopher Harrington

Is it blended? Is it personalized? Is it customized? Personalized and customized learning is emerging in schools and districts across the country in modalities that match the needs and goals of the community that they serve. Yet, at times, it seems as though our industry’s collective emphasis on the terminology of digital learning - on what it is - gets in the way of looking at characteristics of high-quality implementations in order to learn what is working instead.

When the i4tl team is working with schools in the field who are creating their vision for teaching and learning, we tend to put this question in simplest terms: What do we want the humans to do? And what do we want the technology to do? In our latest research project, The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning, we surveyed over 60 schools and districts who have made the instructional shift to personalize their instruction

Blended Learning

The 2015 publication of Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker’s book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools was important for many reasons, but partly because it provided and popularized a shared vocabulary for what was happening in classrooms and schools across the nation. In their work, blended learning emerges as a formal education program in which a student learns in part through online learning and in part in a brick-and-mortar location away from home, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace of their learning. Key to the concept of blended learning is that the online and face-to-face modalities work together to provide a cohesive learning experience for the student. Horn and Staker, along with the work of the Clayton Christensen Institute, gave educators in the field key terminology for describing the basic building blocks of blended learning models: flipped classroom, station rotation, a la carte model, flex model, and enriched virtual learning models.

However, as the field of digital learning has evolved, these well-defined models that have been helpful in the past are becoming less distinct as schools and classrooms move past a one-size-fits-all approach. Our research found that many schools in the disruptive stages of blended learning, in which the use of technology and digital content is actively changing traditional patterns and structures, use combinations of all of these at different times, depending on the goals they are trying to meet or the problems they are trying to solve. Hybrid schools in particular may be operating on a flex model that also includes a la carte, station or lab rotation, some enriched virtual classroom experiences, and elements of flipped classroom.

Personalized Learning

If blended learning helps educators describe “how” instruction is delivered, then personalized learning speaks to the “why” - the goals that schools and districts moving to increasingly student-centered models hope to accomplish. Personalized learning, as Larry Cuban (2017) explains, encompasses a broad range of implementations from sustaining models that can be implemented without much change to the existing schedule or structures of the traditional classroom to truly innovative settings that optimize the pace of learning, instructional approaches, sequencing, objectives, and/or demonstrations of mastery for each learner. While what personalized learning looks like in each setting may vary dramatically, most share the following common characteristics identified by the Department of Education in collaboration with FutureReady Schools:

  1. It starts with a learning experience tailored for all students. This can be individualized learning in digital content, whole-group instruction, Socratic seminar, or small, targeted groups. Some level of identification of student need has already been done.

  2. There is some sort of assessment or measurement of student performance. Assessment can be formal or informal, summative or formative, observational, anecdotal, via portfolios, rubrics, or projects, but ongoing monitoring of student progress is key to personalization of the learning experience.

  3. Student performance is evaluated against an established set of standards. These may include Common Core, state, or district-created core academic standards, but may also be measures for college and career readiness, social-emotional learning, or 21st century learning skills.

  4. Using this information, the educational experience is adjusted or personalized for each learner. The learning experience may be personalized directly in the classroom by a teacher -- sometimes in consultation or partnership with the student -- or may occur through a technology-based personalized learning platform, or through some combination of the two. Some districts have created a “graduate profile” to help them identify what student success looks like in their schools.

  5. Repeat. The process is ongoing, with continual improvement and adjustment to best meet the needs, interests, and goals of the individual student and to build their skills towards mastery.

Julia Freeland Fisher describes the relationship of personalized learning to blended learning as follows: while personalized learning can refer to many different learning modalities, blended learning often comprises “... one of those modalities because leveraging some online learning tends to make personalizing learning at scale far more feasible for a single teacher supporting many students spanning different levels of mastery” (Fisher, 2019).

Customized Learning

Depending on the learning model used, the student may also have voice and choice into how, when, and where to personalize their own learning based on progress data. The term customized learning entered the field of education from the business world and its often used synonymously with personalization, even by experienced practitioners. It gained widespread attention and traction after the 2012 publication of Chuck Schwan and Bea McGarvey’s book Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning in the Age of Empowerment. At its core, customized learning is the capacity to tailor learning to meet the specific needs and/or desires of the learner without adding significantly to the overall cost and workload of the system while providing the same level of deep customization for every student at all times (McGarvey & Schwahn, 2012). Proponents of customized learning point to companies -- such as Nissan, Starbucks, and Nike -- which have all added ways in which the end user can select from an array of features, from product color, design, functionalities, and add-ons to create a product that is customized to their own preferences.

Applied to education, in customized learning models the learners themselves retain much of the choice and control over their learning experience. Thus, while both personalization and customization work with the same end in mind - an educational experience reflective of and responsive to a student’s unique abilities and interests - the most significant difference between the two is the latter’s emphasis on the locus of control resting with the learner as the ‘end user'. Essentially, while personalization may be done primarily by the teacher or the learning system, customization is done by or to a large degree with the input of the student.

An Ever-Evolving Landscape

It was evident from our study results that the lines between the models of blended learning, personalized learning, and customized learning are blurring. In fact, most schools are doing some part of one or all of these. Adoption of personalized or customized learning principles was not relegated to any single instructional model but was present and/or in progress across fully online schools, in blended or “hybrid” learning models, and in traditional school models utilizing varying levels of technology integration. In our continuing blog series, i4tl will be reporting on other lessons learned from our latest research.

***Note: The research study The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning was published by the Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc.

About the Authors

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School as well as CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading.

Dr. Christopher Harrington is the Director of the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, the research arm of Michigan Virtual. He also serves as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Institute for Teaching and Leading.