There seems to be a storm brewing in personalised learning. What started out as promise of individual support for every student, has in many utterances turned into grim realism. Some early proponents have shifted to resist the trend of personalisation. I have been reading too many reports about experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

How is this possible? The general notion of personalization is a positive one. The definition of personalized learning refers to “instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner”. This goal is more valid than ever. But somewhere in the middle, the movement has seemed to take a wrong turn.

So, what issues are causing the storm clouds?


1. Personal is not the same as alone

Sharp-sighted observations have highlighted that personalisation is often mistaken with individualisation. Some may think that ordering a set of activities in an optimal way would help the learners. Unfortunately, individual playlists of learning activities, do not help the learner.

Learning is inherently a creative and social process.

Humans are not made to learn in isolation, no matter how optimal the ordering of tasks would be. Human interaction plays a significant role in learning.

Learning is, by its’ nature, a social process. We learn from each other, and we learn when interacting with each other. Many of the problems we face in work require effective communication and close collaboration. No one learns these skills in isolation. Instead, schools should offer students with opportunities face the complex and rich interactions present in collaborative work.

Education needs to prepare learners for participation in an information-heavy, networked society. Skills to collaborate will be critical resources for well-being and succeeding in life.


2. Technology does not change the nature of learning

The second problem with personalisation seems to be the conception of technology’s role. Many personalised learning solutions make use of technological solutions. But taking on a digital learning tool does not change the nature of learning. Technology helps only so far as it supports a valid pedagogical solution.

It is worrisome if trained experts put all their trust in technology.  The power of digital learning is to extend the reach of skilled educators. No digital tool alone will solve pedagogical problems.

If the educational tool offers little more than a playlist of learning assignments, it leaves teachers frustrated with personalized learning as well as educational technology. No wonder, digital solutions are criticized as inadequate or implementing simple tricks for commercial reasons.


3. (Personalised) learning is hard

Personalised learning is close to the paradigms of lifelong learning and self-regulated learning. They all emphasize the responsibility and active role of the learner. Schools have a long history of telling students what to do and learn. Making the students take responsibility goes against this trend. And it takes perseverance to watch children fail and go off the rail when learning to make decisions.

It is not an easy task. Getting the learner to take on an active role requires support to meet each student’s needs.

The idea of learner being the driver in the learning process is not a new one. But what has changed is the situation surrounding the school. It has become clear, that the amount of information is far too vast to be memorized. Beyond that, a lot of information becomes obsolete in few years anyway. Students should be able to keep up with the changing environment. To state the obvious, teaching this is not easy.

Lifelong learning emphasises the need for learning even after graduating from school. Personalised learning takes this even further. It takes the individual student as its’ starting point. It emphasises that students should use their strengths and find learning opportunities. Learners who can find learning opportunities and use the available resources will thrive. These are skills that help in every field.


A look forward

Personalised learning is about engaging learners in a meaningful learning process. Loosening instruction pushes learners to take more responsibility.

Learners have to take the initiative. This is the revolution schools have been heading towards as long as they have existed. The importance of this goal is well stated by  Jerome Bruner: “We have known for years that if you treat people, young kids included, as responsible, contributing parties to the group, as having a job to do they will grow into it – some better than others, obviously, but all benefit.”

The difficulty is the balance between autonomy and support. Too little and you risk stressing out the student too much. Too much structure and they have no freedom to try their own wings. This is where the ideal implementation of educational technology could help.

We are not looking to replace teachers with technology. But, technology may be able to help in situations where a teacher is not available. When things feel overwhelming, suggestions about supporting tasks or study buddies can be helpful. It should be win-win for learner and teacher alike.


So, where are we now?

We know that personalisation of learning has become imperative. This does not mean purely individualised learning, nor is it the opposite of social learning. Personalised learning can be seen as an approach in educational policy and practice whereby every student matters. It equalises learning opportunities in terms of learning skills and motivation to learn.

How do we move forward from here? Can we see the horizon from the breaking waves? Or is our personalised learning vessel already on a right route, and the storm is only in a teacup? What do you think?

Follow up for my next blog to read about how we are looking to solve this.

Topi Litmanen

Dr Topi Litmanen works as a Chief Educational Scientist in Claned Group. He is responsible for ensuring, that the pedagogical aspects of the Claned are based on latest learning research. Topi makes sure that Claned customers get the needed support for meeting their digital learning needs.

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