Personalized Learning 101
Remember when we called personalized learning “individualized learning”? Probably not, it was in the days before computers entered classrooms. Educators took the individualized part literally. You could almost do it with a small class, by planning for each child—almost, and at different levels of lessons delivered in a 1:1 way—almost. Small groups usually won out most of the time, and selecting individual meetings with students while other students were at center activities helped. Still, in most cases it was a bit of a noisy workshop environment. That was not all bad, but it made individualizing reading challenging.
At the outset, computers didn’t change much, because at the beginning there was only one in a classroom—if a teacher was lucky. Sadly, one computer in a classroom is still true for many educators today. Individualizing computer time with one computer is a group ordeal, and usually only one of four or five learning center activities. When computers began to fly in flocks to computer rooms or labs, teachers began to hear the words, “this is my computer” from students for the first time, and there was an increased capacity for students to work in a more individualized way on individually planned projects. That “this is mine” breakthrough made personalized learning a reality for the first time.
Educators began to wonder how to create that personalized environment in their classrooms, too. Once or twice a week in a computer lab environment wasn’t consistent, and there was too much set up and re-learning at each visit. The location was unfamiliar and unpredictable. The idea, though, for many, was an idea ahead of its time. It was far too difficult to place more that two or four desktop computers into the limited environment of a traditionally rowed classroom with few electrical wall outlets. That was as far as an educator could go. It was not the personalized, instructionally-sound environment the computer lab could provide.
With the arrival of laptops, educators began to say to students, “Some day you’ll all have a computer on your desk, or in your laps.” And students, most of whom saw more computers outside school, looked wide-eyed back and said, “Yeah, right.” Personalized learning in an instructional technology environment was certainly a possibility for conversation, but not a reality. Educators did what they could, and that usually meant an interactive whiteboard if lucky, possibly a computer or two, and traditional pencil and paper personalized approaches, along with those trips to the computer lab. Students, educators, administrators, and parents asked for more.
Today, educators in the quarter of the world that has access to technology continue to struggle with how to get that technology in their classrooms. Tablets, handhelds and laptops have increased the possibility for students with computing devices in their hands and laps. That, along with mobile networking, is changing what the learning environment looks like. Untethered digital learning for individual students and teachers, within a learning space, can finally make personalized learning dreams really happen. That connection to and from students and teachers, which could only happen in a computer lab network, can now happen wirelessly in a classroom. Apps and software that make it possible for every student to participate can create an environment where even the timid student can be bold and teachers can archive daily lessons and events, as well as student responses. We are at a critical point in the evolution of personalized learning, where we have the technology to actually make it happen for all students with the availability of the right tools—hardware and software—with all educators orchestrating it ubiquitously. In many ways, educators have flipped to launching classroom collaborative efforts from a personalized learning starting point—a complete reversal of the way it all began.