Personalized Learning 101

compclassRemember 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.


Ken Royal

Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is an Education storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.
One Comment
  • Tim Rice
    8 September 2013 at 11:20 pm -

    Personalized learning has been, and will continue to be, the result of a collaborative effort between the teacher and the student. Today, technology has made that collaboration a little easier (when technology works) and more personalized (because of the “anytime” conversation between the student and the teacher); but the two don’t have to be in the same room, the same building, or the same state to make it happen.
    It reminds me of the time my wife brought her cell phone to the beach; we had brought our kids to the town beach at the lake and were enjoying the warm weather as a family. She was waiting on a call from a client when a friend said it’s too bad you cannot enjoy the moment and are tied to your work. She smiled and said, “are you crazy, I would much more prefer sitting here in my beach chair with my toes in the sand and water, wearing my bathing suit waiting on a call than sitting in my office in a business suit waiting on a call.” My wife had made the switch, technology had opened things up, her phone could go anywhere, and so could she.
    This is true of technology and education, students can access you, interact, ask questions, and connect when they have the interest and the question without waiting to be in the same room. It is true, we are in a brave new world of personalized learning,…