Personalized Learning vs. A Personal Learning Network Awareness


I read What is Personalized Learning, and I agree with several things about the overall post, most importantly the opening sentence…Words matter.  This post came after an earlier post of mine which countered the term “personalized learning”.  As a result, I feel I need to address this again since there are a few points in yesterday’s post that I take issue with.  My ideas are not totally inconsistent with what Downes mentions in his piece, Personal and Personalized Learning, well worth the read, but will attempt to take a slightly different angle.

Philosophical Analysis

Let’s first take a look at the use of the term, personalized, which is defined generally, outside the context of education.

to design or tailor to meet an individual’s specifications, needs or preferences: a personalized search engine (

We often hear of companies personalizing objects, software, materials, computers, etc. for other companies, which is clearly an appropriate use of the term…to a point.

I used to work for a university who contracted a company to design an accounting software system which was said to be “personalized” based on certain criteria dictated by the institution.  When it came to implementation however, there were many cases where the “personalized” accounting software failed to meet the needs or preferences of the user.  Now, in all honesty, personalizing any accounting software to the needs and preferences of every user within an organization is indeed an impossible task.

Let’s look at two attempts to transfer the notion of personalized learning to education.

Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests – including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn – to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible (iNACOL).

“Tailoring” is not the same as “personalizing”.  Tailoring instruction and assessment as been mentioned at length in Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) Understanding by Design, and is quite different than “personalizing” something, which in education, is impossible frankly. More on this later.

Buckley’s attempt at personalized learning brings together “personalisation for the learner” and “personalisation by the learner” (Wikipedia). 

Buckley is on to something, but using the word, personalization, gets in the way.  Let’s analyze.

Personal Learning Network

For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the term personal learning network (PLN) to mean any and all associations between 1) ideas, beliefs, thoughts, concepts, etc.; 2) materials, objects, technologies, etc.; and 3) human relationships.  A PLN will also be used instead of the notion of a personal learning environment; the former again will include ideational, material, and human nodes in their aggregate, both as they exist at any given moment and/or how they morph, create, and deplete over time.

Without a doubt, teachers are huge factors in how students use their PLN for the purposes of achieving course and personal objects within a formal education context.  But a PLN never begins from nothing and changes into something.  It always has and always will exist, for better or for worse.  Learning is a particular change in one’s PLN for a particular purpose (whether intentional or incidental), usually allowing one to either be able to do something new or to realize a new perspective (i.e., to think differently).

To personalize a learning experience for a learner would mean having some god-like ability to control every possible (ideational, material, and human) node configuration that came directly (one degree of separation) or indirectly (two or more degrees of separation) in contact with the individual.  Impossible.  If we look at Buckley’s “personalisation by the learner”, this would mean that the learner is beginning (presumably from nothing) to personalize (or control) every aspect of ideational, material, and human nodes that came directly and indirectly with the person.  Again, not possible.

The term personalized learning is not needed in education when referring to teaching and learning because we already have more accurate terms already available in the literature.


What follows is a counter to What is Personalized Learning?

Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

I do not think tailoring is the same as personalizing.  Differentiated instruction is a clearer term that means the same as this definition, except for the focus on students’ strengths.  It seems negligent to ignore differentiating content, process, product, and environments based also on students’ weaknesses.  

Personalized learning includes the idea of connectivism… In personalized learning environments, educators seek to meet each student within their own zone of proximal development.

This is the first time I have ever witnessed someone attempt to connect #connectivism with a cognitivist idea – the zone of proximal development (ZPD), a concept belonging to the Vygotsky’s sociocultural camp.  The ZPD actually is another reason why personalized learning falls short.  The problem with using ZPD is that it is impossible to accurately determine the ZPD of any one individual (either at a given point of time or over time), let alone a group of 20+ students in a particular class.  Likewise, it is impossible to determine what a learner can truly do on her own, and what she can do with the assistance of a more capable other (e.g., teacher or classmate).  The ZPD also fails when explaining how students learn by helping less capable others (e.g., reciprocal teaching).

Differentiated Instruction

Practitioners mentioned different components of personalization (differentiated instruction, student agency, flexible pacing, etc,), but differentiated instruction really covers most of these components.  Differentiating content, process, product, and environment pretty much covers it.  Giving students agency, (democratic education), giving them a voice, etc., allows them to take responsibility of their own learning.  If we just removed personalized learning from the discourse, a more accurate discussion could be made on how to create educative experiences for the active learner.

Buckley was on to something though if he just had worded it a bit differently.  Instead of bringing together “personalisation for the learner” and “personalisation by the learner”, the job of the educator is to bring better awareness among their learners of their respective PLNs as they pertain to specific contexts, conditions, and purposes so that learner can transition from being dependent, to independent, to later being interdependent. This has nothing to do with personalization, and has everything to do with having the metacognitive skills and insight to cultivate a (ideational, material, and human) nodal collective that best serves the individual and society at large.  It appears that Buckley was all about awareness building, but I would frame it as a PLN as opposed to personalized learning.

Words do matter.  Conflating words like connectivism and ZPD when trying to justify “personalized learning”, seems to cloud the issue.  No need to add yet another buzzword when we have plenty that currently exist in the literature that say the same thing in a much more unified, coherent, and cohesive way: differentiated instruction, understanding by design, paideia seminar, greater awareness of one’s personal learning network, problem-based learning, task-based learning, content and academic language learning approach, sheltered-instruction operation protocol, content and language integrated learning, etc.

Personalized learning already exists, and has always existed simply because each individual is unique.  Each person already has a PLN, for better or for worse, whether the individual is aware of its potential or not, even if the educator never differentiates instruction whatsoever.  Each learner will experience the exact same situation and subsequent situations differently, even if told to do the exact same thing.  To personalize anything requires using past experiences and current understandings (which are unique to the individual) to link the known with the unknown.

In order to link the known with the unknown (i.e., learning), educators can help learners better cultivate their (already existing) PLN for a particular purpose.  Educators and students alike are making decisions throughout this awareness process, but it is not personalized learning.  Learning happens at both a cognitive and metacognitive level, through constant “tweaking” of monitoring of learning and making inferences based on empirical (observational) data.  It´s messy…it´s simple, yet complex.  Personalized learning is not dichotomous (all or nothing), but rather inherent in the individual learner (for better or for worse) regardless what happens in the outside world.

I can agree with many concepts that others associate with when linking these concepts with personalized learning, without agreeing with the term itself.  I have done the same with the term massive open online course (MOOC) as well. If one feels compelled to use the term personalized learning, envision how it would look in practice and then thoughtfully distinguish this term (empirically) with concepts that already existent in the literature.

What have I missed?  Looking at the pragmatics of teaching and learning, what does personalized learning add to the discourse that hasn’t already been said?  

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