January 21, 2021

The Tipping Point to Personal Learning – Part 3

BTW… This exponential growth curve applies to postsecondary schools too. In less than five years students taking all college courses online may outnumber those taking all courses in classrooms. (fn 18)

The authors of Disrupting Class make a convincing case that the disruptive innovation of student-centered computer-delivered instruction will bring the end of teacher-based instruction (and, therefore, conventional schooling. (fn 17) According to their theory and data, the tipping point has already occurred; the shift is happening. We see it in the exponential growth of online learning as well as the classroom use of computer-based exercises, tutorials, and games. Beyond that, we hear it in the new language of K-12 education —  “flipped classrooms” and, most prominently of late, “personalized (or individualized) learning.” (fn 19).

I’m holding out hope that the projections of Disrupting Class are wrong — at least in part. Not that schooling as we know it will continue to thrive. It won’t, and it shouldn’t. (fn 20) I’m hoping that the disruptive innovation which will end conventional to schooling is not (as DClabels it) “student-centered computer-delivered instruction,” but is instead learner-centric learning. That the disruption is not about instructional software, nor virtual schools and digital content providers, but about the idea that each learner charts and pursues her own learning pathways.

Here’s how I’d like to see the disruption play out.

From teacher-based instruction
To computer-based instruction
From teacher-based instruction
To individualized schooling
Stage Two
To student-oriented computer-delivered instruction
To learner-centric learning
(Projected by Disrupting Class)
(Hoped for by Stevan Kalmon)

The labels matter, as I’ll try to demonstrate below.

Talk about “personalized learning” or “individualized learning” is all the rage in education. Indeed, a year ago a column in Forbes rhetorically wondered whether personalized learning is just a fad. (fn 21) But for the most part what’s being raged about is really just stage one of the disruptive shift that DC characterizes as “computer-based instruction” and what I would label “individualized schooling.” It’s still monolithic with respect to the learner; hierarchical authority still mandates what must be learned. Increasingly, students are offered some crumbs of individualization — like the opportunity to take courses online that aren’t available in one’s physical school, or the ability to set one’s own pace for covering (hopefully mastering) content — as with the Kahn Academy or Plato Learning.

This Stage One shift was epitomized by the theme of Educational Leadership in February 2012: “For Each to Excel.” In the first featured article, edtech gadfly Larry Cuban framed the issue as one of differentiation.

“Many practitioners (and the public) highly value standardizing curriculum and instruction for students…. Yet educators and the public also prize individual excellence — cream rising to the top. Differentiating the curriculum for students — for example, for gifted students, students in advanced placement courses, English language learners, and students with special needs — enables schools to customize learning opportunities and cultivate individual achievement.” (fn 22)

Note the assumption Cuban makes that curriculum is established for the student — standardized. The “balanced” approach he recommends would differentiate the predetermined curriculum. Customization, yes, but in the way that automakers offer models and options. You don’t get to build your own car.

Some examples of this Stage One — individualized schooling:

  • AP online — one of the fastest growing segments of online learning, and a primary example of disruption cited in DC.
  • Flipping the classroom — material that the teacher believes students need to absorb is presented online, so that students can decide when and how to ingest it. Classtime is available for more individualized and work that applies the material.
  • Blended learning — various combinations of online and face-to-face schooling environments, the most common of which offers self-paced online courses to students who sometimes work on the courses outside of school and sometimes work on them in school (with adult supervision and support).
  • Tracking — which, of course, schools don’t do any more, except for identified “gifted and talented” students, or NCLB-inspired “leveled” groupings in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
  • Student information systems — through which students, teachers, and parents can track the students’ progress through specific courses as well as the overall learning program. (Without ironic intent these are frequently called “student management systems.”)

For schooling such programs seem like radical changes. But for the most part they’re merely better ways to do school as we understand it rather than ways of transforming how school is done. Their disruptive impact, to borrow the DC language, is that they open the K-12 education market to more “consumers” — students, for example, who want more content than the school’s conventional program provides, or students who would otherwise drop out (or already have dropped out) but can get back in the schooling loop by recovering credit. They also start to build a new education market in which the learner more actively engages in the pursuit of knowledge. Because the curriculum (e.g., the state standards in Colorado or the new and improved Common Core standards) is hard-wired to the educational experience, the individual learner still has minimal choice in what she gets to study, often no choice whatsoever. But she at least has greater capacity for tracking her own progress and greater control over how and when she’ll work through course and curricular requirements. Often, she gets to create her own project, or choose among community service options. (fn 23)

The education market is shifting inexorably to this more individualized approach to schooling. Charter schools, for example. But, as one commentator recently suggested, “For all the talk about ‘personalizing learning’ these days, we don’t often hear much about the actual persons in the process. The prevailing definition of ‘personalization,’ ironically, seems to have more to do with what technology can offer …seems to emphasize data and customization…” (fn 24)

Disrupting Class projects Stage Two as more of this programmed-but-individualized instruction. Because of the individualization that technology affords, the instruction will come with even more models and options for the student.

But Stage Two could be learner-centric learning, in which the learner replaces the school as the primary agent. Each individual learner — as a member of a community of learners and guided by coaching, advising, and community models — both designs what she wants/needs to learn and how she will go about learning it.

Will Richardson says the key strategy we need to pursue is developing each learner’s autonomy. Borrowing from Stephen Downes at the National Research Council of Canada, he says, “Autonomy is what distinguishes between personal learning, which we do for ourselves, and personalized learning, which is done for us.” He asks, “Are we preparing students to learn without us? How can we shift curriculum and pedagogy to more effectively help students form and answer their own questions, develop patience with uncertainty and ambiguity, appreciate and learn from failure, and develop the ability to go deeply into the subject about which they have a passion to learn?” (fn 25)

Personal choice about what to learn? Personal design of learning experiences? The chaos! Not necessarily. To work as a system, it would require dynamic structure and a great deal of mentoring attention to each individual. But the energy that we now invest in devising and implementing instruction could be invested instead into nurturing, strengthening, and guiding the innate human desire to learn. And such a system will do a better job of preparing our kids for their future than the system we have now.

Gabriel at the 2006 HS Science Fair
Project Title-The Fruit of Paradise: In Vitro Embryo
Germination of Musaceae

Here’s a learning story for the 21st century: Gabriel Sachter-Smith, now 23, discovered at 13 a compelling interest in bananas. Precocious, highly energetic, and

intensely curious, Gabriel had never been a particularly “good” student. But entirely independent of school (and academic credit), he launched a personal, in-depth study of bananas and other tropical fruits – learning through websites and online communities and developing an experimental garden in the backyard of his mountainside home in Nederland, Colorado. By the time he graduated from high school (not with honors), Gabriel was a widely recognized international authority on the subject, invited to present at conferences and exchanging ideas/information with some of the world’s leading experts. Correspondents who did not know him, other than through their online exchange, frequently called him Dr. Sachter. Now he’s a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, which has the most prestigious tropical fruits program in the United States. He still has trouble mastering the classroom. But he has no trouble being a learner. (fn 26)

From “Banana Genius Grows 50 Varietals
On University Of Hawaii Farm,”
Huffington Post – 12/5/10

I’m not suggesting that every kid — every person — has a powerful passion that will drive a lifetime of intense learning. I’m saying that humans are designed to learn. Schooling, as it is currently practiced, is designed to make us unlearners: Students. The disruptive innovation that might be occurring is that schooling will be replaced by networked communities of learners — inspired by passions, fueled by curiosity, guided by mentors, co-learning with colleagues,… Each learner will, as monika hardy says it, “experience the exhilaration of learning in a space of permission to be.” (fn 27)

fn 17 – For details on the case developed in Disrupting Class, see my preceding two posts (“Tipping Point…” parts 1 and 2).
fn 18 – From “Online Education Continues Rapid Growth,” in Brain Track (www.braintrack.com/online-colleges/articles/online-education-continues-to-grow – accessed 10/1/12): “According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of students enrolled in at least one distance education course increased significantly between 2002 and 2006, from 1.1 million to 12.2 million–and the growth spurt doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, the research firm Ambient Institute expects this figure to skyrocket to 22 million within the next five years. By 2014, Ambient predicts that the number of students taking all of their classes online will increase to 3.55 million, while the number of students taking all of their courses in on-campus classrooms will drop to 5.14 million.”
fn 19 – Here’s a sampling of recent article titles:
  • “K-12 Seeks Custom Fit: Schools Test Individualized Digital Learning” – Theme for Education Week: Technology Counts, 3/17/11.
  • “The rise of K-12 blended learning,” a white paper published in January 2012 by the Innosight Institute – www.innosightinstitute.org/media-room/publications/education-publications/the-rise-of-k-12-blended-learning/.
  • “Blended Learning Mixes It Up,” by Katie Ash, in Technology Counts 2012, 3/15/12, pp. 31-34.”New charter school models are combining online-only learning and face-to-face instruction” – Education Week, 6/15/12
  • “Laptops, personalized learning replace lectures in schools” – eSchool News, 6/21/12
  • “Upside Down and Inside Out: Flip Your Classroom to Improve Student Learning” – Learning & Leading with Technology, June/July 2012
  • “‘Hybrid’ Home-Teaching Options Grow in Popularity” – Education Week, 8/8/12
  • “When Technology Tools Trump Teachers” – Education Week, 8/8/12
fn 20 – I don’t mean this as an attack on K-12 educators. I believe, as the authors of Disrupting Class demonstrate, that public education has been remarkably effective in accomplishing the many and varied missions it’s been assigned during the past 100 years. And it seems abundantly clear to me that teachers do a better job now than they have ever done in this country. And, at the same time, schooling as we conventionally practice it is not adequately helping kids to prepare for their future.
fn 21 – “Is Personalized Learning an Education Fad or Can It Really Happen in Our Schools?” by Adam Garry (on behalf of Dell), www.forbes.com/sites/dell/2011/09/26/personalized-learning/
fn 22 – Source: “Standards vs. Customization: Finding the Balance,” by Larry Cuban, in Educational Leadership, February 2012, pp. 10-15.
Here’s another example. EdWeek (9-18-12) promoted a webinar entitled “Hybrid Learning Pushes Personalization Forward,” with the following paragraph: “To truly personalize the learning process, many educators are blending face-to-face instruction with digital resources that enhance or reinforce classroom learning. View this webinar and hear from three educators on the forefront of hybrid learning and discover what they have learned; including the 5 dimensions of differentiation, the components of a successful 21st century learning environment, and how to effectively personalize education and raise student achievement.”
fn 23 – Here’s an illustration of this minimal enhancement of learning consumer choice: The 2010 Speak Up survey asked students to identify the factors that make virtual education appealing. The students’ top ratings went to Scheduling (61% of high school student respondents), Control of Learning (60% of high school respondents), Work at Own Pace (57%), College Credit (50%), and Review Class Material (45%). These answers are about time, place, and a little bit about manner, not at all about what students will learn. You can’t blame the students; they’re digging for whatever individuality they can find. Source: “Leveraging Technology for K-12 Learning,” in Education Week, 3/15/12, p. 36.
fn 24 – “People vs. ‘Personalization’: Retaining the Human Element in the High-Tech Era of Education,” by Susan Sandler, in Education Week, 2/29/12, p. 20.
fn 25 – Source: “Preparing Students to Learn Without Us,” by Will Richardson, in Educational Leadership, February 2012, p. 25.
fn 26 – Google Gabriel’s name; you’ll be amazed.
fn 27 – monika hardy is a learning innovation facilitator in Thompson Valley School District (Loveland, CO). The “be you lab” that she and students have created is described in  “Nothing’s nailed down in Thompson School District’s Innovation Lab,” by Shelley Widhalm, in the Loveland Reporter-Heraldhttp://www.reporterherald.com/news/education/ci_19173833

Speak Your Mind