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Personalized INSTRUCTION vs. Personalized LEARNING

November 26, 2014

A post from Diane Ravitch yesterday provided a link to a report by UCLA professor Noel Enyedy titled “Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction For Computer Mediated Instruction”.

At the outset of the report, Enyedy offers his definition for Personalized Instruction and differentiates it from Personalized Learning:

It is critical to note that “Personalized Instruction” is not the same as “personalized learning,” even though promoters and vendors of technological systems often use the terms interchangeably. Personalized instruction focuses on tailoring the pace, order, location, and content of a lesson uniquely for each student—as when a software program introduces a quiz at some point during instruction and then, based on the student’s score, either presents the student with new material or with a review of material not yet mastered. It is a rebranding of the idea of individualized instruction first promoted in the 1970s, before the widespread availability of personal computers.

Personalized learning, on the other hand, places the emphasis on the process of learning as opposed to attending exclusively to the delivery of content. Personalized learning refers to the ways teachers or learning environments can vary the resources, activities, and teaching techniques to effectively engage as many students as possible—as when, for example, students with a stronger intuitive understanding of the topic are assigned to small groups and given a challenging task to independently extend their understanding while the teacher concurrently works directly with a small group of students who have less prior knowledge of the topic. This interpretation of “personal” does not imply that each student receives a unique educational experience, but instead that students are provided with multiple entry points and multiple trajectories through a lesson.

Enyedy, after emphasizing that the scope of this study is limited to personalized instruction, does an admirable job of outlining the rationale for expanding the use of technology supported “Personalized Instruction”. He describes and analyzes the shortcomings of the factory school model, noting its inability to provide students with the “critical thinking and independent agency” needed to function in a democracy.

In his description of on-line and blended personalized instruction, Enydey identifies one major problem with its implementation to date: inequity.

Research has found that schools in less affluent areas are more likely to use the technology for remedial instruction and for drill and practice, whereas affluent schools are more likely to use technology in ways that advance problem solving and conceptual understanding. These choices, often left up to individual teachers, have serious implications for equity within the classroom and across schools and districts.

Enydey then attempted to perform a meta-analysis of personalized instruction models, an analysis that he acknowledged was limited because there were not a sufficient number of K-12 systems in place. This meant the lion’s share of the studies he analyzed were at the college level where student agency was arguably higher. But the meta-analysis also incorporated one other flaw, which this paragraph flags:

The study examined the standardized test scores for the same three blended learning schools compared with three other schools in the district to see if the gap between high and low achievers was closed by using blended instruction for one year. The study showed that neither blended learning nor face-to-face instruction in this district was particularly successful at improving the performance of lower achieving students. The gap closed 3% in the blended learning schools compared with the 2% improvement in the comparison schools that used conventional teaching methods.

The flaw is that Enydey, like most policy makers, cannot shake the age-based grade-level paradigm that is the basis of the factory school! If we are to abandon the factory model, we have to also abandon the notion that time is constant and learning is variable…. and therefore abandon the use of our current standardized tests to measure “student learning”. That is, we should not measure how much a student has learned in one year, but devise a means of measuring the extent to which a student is making progress in learning-how-to-learn. To date, we have no means of measuring that and so we continue to measure what it EASY to measure instead of what is IMPORTANT to measure, relying on a factory metric instead of a more holistic metric.

Another flaw in the study is the failure to acknowledge and advocate for more access to technology in schools and, more importantly, in the homes of students nd teachers. This paragraph touches on that topic:

In one RAND study,40 based on the actual expenditures of schools that transitioned to an Intelligent Tutoring System for Algebra 1, the cost increased an average of $120 per student for the one course. This increase was reduced to $70 per student per class in schools with a good existing technological infrastructure. However, as many as half the schools in implementation studies undertaken by SRI Education41 and RAND42 were found to need a substantial investment in their technological infrastructure before they could take advantage of Personalized Instruction.

Presiden Obama’s support for a new surtax on phone services to raise $3 billion for schools is a step in the right direction if we ever hope to address the inequities among schools… but in order to provide each and every student with the same opportunities to learn, as emphasized repeatedly in this blog, we need to provide each and every student and teacher with high speed internet at their doorsteps. Until every child can access the power of the internet in their home and every teacher can access the comprehensive data packages outside of school we will be stuck with the models for teaching and learning we have today.

Enydey does note near the end of his paper that the current models in place: on-line instruction and personalized instruction, may be replaced with something different in the future:

The type of computer technology that many believe will lead to transformational change will be technologies built around the process of learning and that attempt to enhance human-to-human interaction, not supplant it: technologies that spark conversations and inquiry; technologies that support these conversations with tools for visualization, simulation, analysis and communication; technologies that allow the students to create physical or computational objects; and technologies that allow students to share their ideas and solutions with their peers and larger social networks for feedback and refinement. There are many promising new models for how computers should be used to support learning.

These promising new models are predicated on two major changes: one a change of thinking on our part and the other an investment in technology. We need to change our thinking by abandoning the factory school model, which will lead to the abandonment of age-based student cohorts and the abandonment of standardized tests as the measure of “learning”. And, we need to make a he investment in our nation’s technology infrastructure by ensuring that each school and home has the means of providing personalized instruction AND learning to students.

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