Implementing a Personalized Learning Environment

Access and Inclusion February 29, 2016

This article is part of a series on personalized learning (part 6 of 6).

Personalised Learning has been defined with different shades of meaning by different theoreticians and implemented by researchers for well over a century. Early examples include the work of Helen Parkhurst and the Dalton Plan, implemented in some US schools from 1914 onwards, which allowed students to plan their own individual curriculum in order to meet personal needs, interests and abilities. Similarly, and around the same time, Carleton Washburne implemented the Winnetka Plan, which personalized the curriculum to focus on creative activities and emotional and social development of each individual student. Later proposals and plans include Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery Learning model, implemented in schools in the 1950-60’s, which presumes all children can learn effectively if they are provided with sufficient time and appropriate learning conditions. Another influential model was the Keller Plan, more formally known as the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), which was developed by a team led by Fred Keller and first implemented in the 1960’s at the University of Brasília and then during the 1970’s in many universities worldwide. The Keller Plan used individualized self-study modules supported by peer-tutoring to deal with learning difficulties on a personalized basis. Yet more recently, since the 1980’s Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been used as the theoretical basis for personalized learning. 

In the last decade or two, diverse educational institutions have planned and implemented hundreds of projects that promote the personalization of learning, typically through the use of digital tools and technologies. It is no wonder that Howard Gardner was moved to write his “primer on personalized learning” when he learned that Mark Zuckerberg was pledging millions, if not billions, of dollars to research and development of personalized learning. I am sure that Gardner interpreted Zuckerberg’s decision as being information-technology-driven, so he was moved to present a psychology-driven scenario (albeit a scenario that rather excessively and inaccurately promotes his own particular learning theories over and above all others). However, careful reading of the letter written by Zuckerberg and his wife to their recently born daughter, in which they pledge to support the personalized learning movement, suggests that application of digital technologies is not the only driving force, behind their decision. They appear to have been well aware of the pedagogical, as well as psychological, principles, processes and procedures that underlie the personalization of learning. Maybe they were already aware of the work of such institutions as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (INACOL) on teaching teachers to implement personalized learning in USA schools. Maybe they were also aware of the strong support for this movement expressed by the education authorities of the USA and many other national governments. 

One such official government pronouncement was made by David Miliband in 2004, outlining the position of the British government regarding the promotion of personalized learning in the national school system. According to Miliband, there are five phases of personalized learning:

  • Teachers and students work together to identify needs, strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Teachers and students work together to select learning goals and strategies. 
  • Student chooses the curriculum / content, creating a personal learning pathway.
  • Depending on student progress, teachers choose/adapt their teaching strategies. 
  • Using social and community networks, students (with the help of the teacher, when needed) create their ideal personalized learning environment.

In the remainder of this article we will examine the process of implementing a personalized learning environment, using a five-phase structure similar to that suggested by Milliband, but with the nature of the activities and expected outcomes of each phase somewhat more precisely defined. Please note that, quite intentionally, no reference is made to any specific learning theories and, with the exception of the fifth phase, no direct mention is made of digital technologies. 

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1. Collaborative analysis of learner needs / wants / strengths / weaknesses

In a personalized learning environment, learning is focused on the learners – their needs, interests, prior learning, preferred modes of learning and so on. Taking into consideration the individual differences in these factors which typically exist between individual students, it follows that each student would most benefit from a personal learning plan (PLP) in terms of both WHAT is to be learned (the objectives or expected outcomes and competencies) and HOW it is going to be learned (information sources, practical problems learning methods, etc.). Furthermore, personalized learning involves the learner in the planning of what to learn and how to learn it. We start from the premise that learners know what they should be trying to learn and, from the experience gained in previous learning, have quite a lot of knowledge concerning how they learn best, so it makes sense that they collaborate with their teachers on designing their learning goals and selecting appropriate ways of achieving them.

2. Collaborative identification of goals, learning resources and practice opportunities

But a personalized learning environment is not entirely led and driven by the learners. Teachers, because of their subject matter knowledge (not only knowing the content itself but also what makes it easy or difficult to understand and learn) and their pedagogical knowledge (gained from their teacher training and their on-the-job experience) can also diagnose and determine each learner’s needs and how they learn best, taking into consideration all that they know about how each individual learner learns, their strengths, challenges, aptitudes, talents and aspirations. Teachers also understand how learners can best access and engage with the content and how they can best express what they know and understand.

3. Collaborative negotiation of a Personal Learning Plan (or Contract)

Therefore, in a personalized learning environment, the teacher and the learner should become partners in learning, working together to define WHAT should be learned and determine HOW it may best be learned and also HOW the learning outcomes should be measured and assessed. The learner has a voice, not only in terms of the learning content, but also in how they prefer to acquire information and what ways they prefer to engage with the content. The teacher and learner co-design objectives based on the learner’s learning goals. Goals are identified from the learner’s interests, aspirations, talents, and how they prefer and need to learn. Then the teacher works with the learner to identify any pre-requisite objectives that define the prior skills they need to meet their learning goals. This collaborative planning process results in the formulation of each learner’s personal learning plan (PLP). This is a collaborative process between teacher and learner, which involves some negotiation whenever they initially disagree on the goals or suggest alternative means of achieving them. The PLP is therefore also sometimes referred to as a Learning Contract. This terminology was originally suggested in the literature of Adult Education by such authors as Malcolm Knowles and Roger Hiemstra, but it is now employed at all levels of education. The word “contract” is appropriate in that the learner undertakes to perform certain activities and so accomplish certain outcomes and the teacher undertakes to guide the learner’s activities and  assess the outcomes in a formative manner – which implies taking remedial actions whenever necessary. 

4. Implement, manage and evaluate the plan – collaboratively

When learners have ownership and take responsibility for their learning, they are more motivated to learn and more engaged in the learning process. They have a voice in what they are learning based on how they learn best and have a choice in how they demonstrate what they know to provide evidence of their learning. When learners have choices to interact with the content, discuss what they watched, read, and learned, they are actively participating as learners. The teacher is their guide on their personal journey, more as a facilitator than an instructor, or as it was eloquently expressed in an article by Alison King, “more a Guide on the Side than a Sage on the Stage”. Additionally, learners should demonstrate mastery of the contracted skills and should be assessed according to a competency-based model. Teachers should help all learners succeed in mastering the contracted competencies. 

5. Develop and utilize “21st century” learning skills and procedures

In a personalized learning environment, learners need to possess self-directed learning skills in order to access and use appropriate and relevant tools and resources to support their learning. They also need to develop and use critical thinking skills to evaluate the relevance and value to them of the content they access, to select and use the most appropriate tools to support any learning task, etc. As 21st century learners, they should collaborate, share, and learn with their teachers, peers, experts, and other learners around the world. Being a connected learner is now essential in a personalized learning environment. Each learner builds their personal learning network and connections. Therefore, digital literacy is another essential skill-set for personalized learning.