Personalized Learning?

I’ve been thinking about personalized learning a fair amount after hearing it repeated over and over by the hordes of vendors.1

I’m not talking about paprika flavored mush and I’m not talking about a magic fairyland where you chug cherry flavored corn syrup to your heart’s content with no ill effects. My focus is on thinking about how this might work for a teacher with fairly traditional-ized students in a district where success is still defined mainly through standardized tests.2 I am going to make the assumption that these students have a computer and access to the Internet.

It’s also evident my thoughts aren’t revolutionary but I think the ability for technology to help make this kind of personalization much more manageable for teachers and students (in a semi-traditional school framework) is a relatively new development. Classroom workflows don’t come up much, if at all, in my wanderings but I think they are important and should be considered. There’s also quite a lot of current hype and focus on flipping/blending/frappĂ©ing3 Maybe it has to do with districts finally giving up on providing technology and allowing BYOD. My bet is the BYOD wave will go poorly at scale and will result in fairly trivial surface level “changes” – some googling of answers, clicker assessments, and the ability to check grades/hw on line but nothing that really matters at any kind of scale. For the record, that’s a pragmatic view rather than a pessimistic one. It takes a huge amount of work to change how school functions, to actually take advantage of what could be done with technology. Long term pedagogical conditioning and the very way the mechanical pieces of school work are against you. I say that speaking from a place of privilege where we’ve had 1:1 laptops since 2001. I’m spoiled but I’ve also had a long time to observe/participate in digital content, blended learning, personalization, etc. up close and watch how many different scenarios have played out in many different classrooms and schools. I


Common and Individualized

Most of the time it comes down to balance. That’s pretty much a thematic element for me in everything- lots and lots of gray.

I think there’s a need to balance shared media experiences4 with individual media experiences while still making the connections between the two. It’s difficult, but essential in my opinion, to create a pattern of shared experiences that becomes the substrate for individual and small group experiences and that you intentionally build on these common experiences. The whole notion of a cohort of peers engaging in synchronous or semi-synchronous acts has value. There are ways to preserve this kind of peer interaction and the value of larger discussions while still allowing students to follow individual paths but it has to be done with intent.

Common experiences give the class similar references, vocabulary, and offer the teacher a chance to model specific elements of analysis or other skills. The individual paths offer the chance to make new connections to items of individual interest, to broaden and deepen understandings, and to practice applying skills in new realms. These individual experiences can also help pull other students onto interesting path ways.

Most classes are composed entirely of teacher selected common media experiences. On occasion, “current events” are brought in by students or they get to pick a book from one or two options. Part of this switch is about allowing for broader and more sophisticated student choice but another portion is about taking some of these individual choices and elevating them to a whole class experience. The teacher can act like a writer selectively using allusions to small group or individual experiences to encourage other students towards useful information or to allow those students to take an elevated role in the class. That takes at least two things. The student has to be reflecting and curating in a way that the teacher can see and the teacher has to be tracking that content in a way that enables them to weave the students and content into the common events. This isn’t putting the entire onus for elevating the content and making these connections on the teacher but it’d be especially important as students were getting used to this new set up. There would be interesting elements of community building (online and off) that would need to be considered in addition to the pedagogy and mechanics necessary to make it flow.

Open Eyes and Workflows

It seems increasingly important to me that students (and teachers) look at their non-school world using the lenses of analysis and patterns of thought traditionally constrained to the classroom and to content defined as “educational.” If we believe that it is these patterns of thought and analysis that make liberal arts/mathematical/scientific thinking valuable then we have to do a much better job getting people to think like this in the wild.

One relatively low bar to getting this started in an English classroom is getting students to set up consumption5 workflows around content that students are interested in and then setting up an framework/workflow for curation in addition to a framework for aggregation and possible asynchronous communication around the curated results.

Initially you’d create one easy place for students to get a bunch of different web based content. In fancier terms, I might say- “Create an aggregation point for media consumption.” In the past, I’d have used Google Reader. I can do that in Fever but you’re likely to want to use something free like Feedly. The key is adding a layer of curation/annotation between the student reader and the class aggregation. That metadata layer could be built into your RSS reader (Google Reader would let me add tag and notes that would be added to that content in an RSS feed) or you could add a step/system and add the annotation via a social bookmarking service like Diigo. What I’d like to get is a cycle like the one depicted below. Using one the “Press This” bookmarklets for WordPress is also an attractive option and gives more features (image embedding, tiered categories etc.).

RSS hub class content cycle

I made a quick example of what a nascent site like this might look like for English. I have added some content to it but hope to open it up to a few English classes once the year starts, assuming I find some willing teachers.

My goal would be to create interwoven clusters of content that were mixtures of teacher chosen elements and student found media. Students would be applying the understandings from class and bringing in media that made sense. In a perfect world, we’d be creating a mini This American Life or Moth Story hour that blended elements under a central theme. At times that theme might be large, like “What is truth?” but it could be smaller and more defined with students aggregating diverse examples of poetic language, allusions, quotes that moved them etc. Some of this work could happen semi-synchronously other elements would add up over time and would be asynchronous (more like a snowball). You could take different aspects of this pretty far afield with groups or individuals and still loop back using the common language and grounding of the teacher chosen elements. It would be important to actually make use of the content and to work it into individual and group conversations in ways that mattered. It would also provide interesting fodder for student assignments. It’d be far more compelling to create or analyze from the repository of quotes generated by your peers than to use the homogenized quotes from your literature textbook.

1400 words is probably a good place to stop for now. If you’ve made it this far you’re proving people will read long form content even on the Internet.

1 There ought to be a name similar to “carpet bagger” for the people picking over the NCLB decimated remains of education.

2 I have faith in a Shawn Cornally approach but I don’t think most places would allow it, nor would many be willing to risk it.

3 Yes, I made the last one up but give it a month or two and it’s likely to become popular.

4 I know “media experiences” is an awkward phrase but it’s the best I could come up with to encompass the idea that you can and should do very different things with many different kinds of media when working in an English classroom.

5 I started off saying “reading” but I think it’s more than that. You want reading for sure but I think images, music, and videos have a role that’s worth acknowledging and cultivating.

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