Personalization and Personal Learning Networks

For me, I can only do that from my own experience with people I’ve known and things that I’ve lived and experienced. That’s what good pop music is all about, pop music that does reach out to people. It’s very personalized and very real, honest and sincere. Jon Secada

The word personalization has steadily been trending upward over the years, where its usage has been most prominent in the United States (Google Trends). I came across Dobyns´ take on the word this week which sparked further reflection into why personalization – within the field of education – seems to pop up quite a bit in the blog, Getting Smart. I tend to agree with Dobyns on the end goal, but think that the term personalization just clouds the issue.

I agree with Dobyns that the school experience should reflect the following elements: 1) Students who are empowered to be self-directed in their interests/passions through, 2) the process of inquiry/PBL, while 3) using assessment data to design experiences that 4) intentionally seek to address critical areas of improvement that either impede student learning or are essential for future success (para. 11). I just don´t think that personalization is the answer.

Statements that muddy the waters

  • Personalization is not a pedagogy (a theory and method for teaching and learning)
Ok, so what is it then?  There is no clear explanation as to what personalization is…only why it is important and vaguely how it occurs (i.e., in problem-based learning).
  • While personalization happens for students through classroom-level interactions, our experience is that it takes coordinated school-wide attention to have enduring changes in practices that meaningfully impact student outcomes.
Personalization is only about classroom-level interactions?  This just sounds like differentiated instruction.  There is nothing about personalization and assessment within a common curriculum.  If there were, it would help define what was meant by personalization.
  • For our work we see [meeting the needs of the students] as “getting personal” in ways that are consistent with our beliefs about education and our espoused pedagogy.
There´s a dangerous assumption going on here: one´s beliefs (i.e., theory in use) and one´s espoused pedagogy (i.e., espoused theory) are both the same.  Oftentimes this is not the reality, and when this occurs, it can have a detremental effect on the educative experience.  Also, personalization should not be confused with understanding the needs of the students.  This is like saying that we should tailor instruction based on individual learning styles.
  •  A rigorous, high quality project and problem approach to teaching and learning creates a set of environmental conditions where good teachers can do tremendous personalization work. This approach allows students to enter the learning at their level and make sense in a very personal way.
This still does not explain much about what is personalization.  So, it´s an approach but not a theory or method for teaching and learning?  Is it possible to personalize the experience without implementing a problem-based learning assignment?  Is it possible to conduct a project-based learning assignment and not personalize it?  
  • Marrying PBL and personalization can multiply the teacher’s presence, giving students access to the learning tools adults use in the “outside” world to answer our own questions and needs, and produces better data around learning student and teacher reflection and decision making.
“…Multiply the teacher´s presence…”and personalization?  Again, this sounds like personalization is something done to students (which it is not).  If we “give students access to learning tools”, this is the same as personalization? How do teachers (schools) reconcile students answering their own questions and needs in a way that matches the curriculum?  How do big data and learning analytics fit into this concept of personalization?


Personalization is not something done to/for the student.  It does not take a school-wide mandate in order to implement it – it can be done at the classroom level.  And it is not called personalization

Teachers cannot personalize the learning experience for the student. Learning is personalized without the teacher doing anything at all.  It´s like saying that learning should be social…learning can´t help but be social.  Even if every aspect of instruction and assessment were magically the same, each individual learner would experience a unique learning experience (i.e., their learning would be personalized).  Each unique learning experience is inherently personalized and social because our interpretation of the world is based on lived experiences.  But it´s easy to think in absolute terms, so let´s introduce a more nuanced perspective.

Teachers can differentiate instruction, which is not the same as Dobyns´use of the term personalization.  Teachers can offer fair amounts of formative and dynamic assessment, making feedback more timely and accessible for each student.  This is still different from personalization. Teachers can differentiate product, process, and content and provide formative feedback to students, which still does not speak to the different roles they play based on student needs: didactic instructor, facilitator, and coach (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005).  The roles teachers play at any given moment is something done to the student, while personalization (like social learning) can´t help but exist, and thus is an internal/social process.

I think the point in using the term personalization is to explain the importance of helping learners become more interdependent.  So, instead of saying personalization, how about a personal learning network (PLN).  A PLN is a conglomerate of ideas, materials (or technologies), and social relationships that serve some purpose.  To understand any one idea is to understand its relationship with the related materials and human relationships that network around that one idea.  Thus, teachers can assist learners to understand and cultivate their own PLN for specific purposes.  These purposes might include class objectives and/or personal objectives that extend beyond the curriculum.  The student personalizes the learning experience in terms of how a PLN serves a particular purpose; the educator is there to facilitate this process.  But, the teacher does not personalize the PLN for the student.  A PLN inherently exists and is unique, but it may or may not be useful for the individual.  The educator´s job is to help the learner make decisions so that the PLN becomes more valuable to the learner over time.  

To Jon Secada, music is personalized based on lived experiences.  To a learner, the classroom experience is personalized since one´s interpretation, understandings, and skill sets are rooted in prior experiences.  Based on these experiences, a teacher´s job is to help transform learners from being dependent, to independent, to interdependent by making them aware of how respective PLNs can take student understandings and skill sets to new levels for specific purposes.  Teachers help students to understand how to personalize their own learning through their awareness of a PLN.


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