A Generation of Personalized Learners
The data from the 2011 Speak Up survey demonstrates that by very young ages, students are using digital and, more increasingly, mobile technologies to collaborate with their peers. Nearly half (46%) of high school students have collaborated on homework assignments using Facebook outside of class time, and one in ten have tweeted about an academic topic. And the percentage of kids owning smartphones has sky rocketed. In fact, half of 9th-12th graders are now smartphone owners.
Perhaps of more significance, however, is the fact that high school students are beginning to take online classes outside of school, without being required to do so, to explore topics that pique their interests and engage in online discussions with strangers to learn. It’s becoming more and more clear that this generation does not necessarily correlate school with learning. Fascinatingly, about 66% of students noted that they measure their academic success by the goals they achieve through their personal successes, not what they do at school or through earning pride from their parents. This is a compelling shift and not the portrait of an apathetic, complacent generation of Internet addicted consumers so frequently painted by older generations.
What is Personalized Learning?
A personalized learning environment is one that puts a learner in control of her pathway. She becomes empowered to make choices about how she learns, what she learns, and how she demonstrates her proficiencies. She is empowered to use the tools that are relevant to her and to express her findings through a variety of media. She is encouraged to share her work and to leverage the feedback of her community, of which she views herself a part, to improve her knowledge. She views learning as a lifelong journey and sees the value in connecting what is produces today with where she will be five or twenty years from now.
The Rules of Personalized Learning
#1: The Learner Is in Control
The cultivation of personalized learning isn’t a surprise when we examine what the underlying rule of a Google-ized society is. According to Jarvis, the essential yet unspoken clause that is baked into each and every Google experience is “the user is in control.” That does seem to be at the heart of personalized learning, doesn’t it? But now let’s take a moment and compare that rule with the rules in place at school or college.
Today, academic institutions are invested in the control of students, and this is perhaps one of the greatest lessons educational leaders must to grasp to create visions for future schools, colleges, and universities. Academic institutions control what classes students can take, when they can take them, when students must show up, and when they can leave (even most online classes oddly adhere to face-to-face seasonal start/end times), and they control how the students achieve success for what they’ve learned. Furthermore, there are rigid boundaries between “collaborating” and “cheating” that too frequently are obscure and nonsensical to students who view themselves as community members who learn from everything and anything they can find online, and who share back openly without hesitation.
#2: Trust Is Mutual and Transparent
The underlying problem here is explained in a theory that combines the ideas of Jarvis and David Weinberger. They jointly observe that in a our digital society, control has an “inverse relationship” with trust. “The more you control, the less you will be trusted; the more you hand over control, the more trust you will earn” (Jarvis, p. 146).
Viewing academia in this light reveals a pervasive problem. If our schools, colleges, and universities control every nook and cranny of our students’ learning, then we must deduce that our students don’t trust the institutions from which they are learning!
To many of us, that might seem preposterous. And if it does, “trust” probably means something very different to you than it does to our younger generation of students. Trust, in our digital, Google-ized society, according to Jarvis, “is an act of opening up; it’s a mutual relationship of transparency and sharing. The more ways you find to reveal yourself and listen to others, the more you will build trust, which is your brand.” This typically doesn’t describe a relationship between a school/college/university and a community, a teacher and her students, a professor and his students. And I would argue that the further a student advances in his academic career, the less likely he is to experience this type of trust. Power and control is even more severe and pervasive in higher education than in K-12.
Why It’s Worth the Risk
Fostering trust through a “mutual relationship of transparency and sharing” is key to the successful implementation of personalized learning. And it will support faculty who feel timid about the idea of giving students control. I’ve seen this work in my classes where I set up a social network. The first semester I tried it, I was scared to death. It was a fully online community college class, and I can remember thinking, “What am I thinking? They’re going to post all kinds of crazy pictures. I’m going to get in so much trouble!” But that’s not what happened at all. It was actually quite the opposite. Students were more engaged, more thoughtful, and more responsive to class than they had ever been previously. I quickly saw the value and importance of developing what I refer to as “Community Groundrules,” which I implement in every class now, and while I’ve never had to actually enforce them, there is a clause that tells students what to do if a rule is violated and how it will be taken care of. So, there is an element of control here but I view it more as a safety measure for my students who are nervous about participating in the network (these are typically my older, return students).
Implementing more personalized learning into your classes involves letting go of control, and this can be a harrowing thought to a teacher or professor. But it can lead to dazzling changes!
A Few Tips for Preparing for Personalized Learning in Your Class
- Prepare – Mentally frame your journey as an experiment, rather than a change that will lead to success or failure.
- Develop Groundrules – Here is a sample.
- Participate – Be a community member and model your groundrules.
- Inquire – Provide opportunities for students to give feedback, and ask them for ideas about how to improve the class (surveys, reflection blog posts, polls, VoiceThreads).
- Listen – Pay close attention to what your students have to say about how their experience is going.
- Take Notes – Use voice recordings or take written notes about particular weeks/units that are strong or need to be reworked.
- Be a Learner – Don’t take things personally. View yourself as a learner trying to improve your class. Your goal isn’t making all your students happy. Your goal is to create a relevant, engaging learning experience. So focus on their feedback and be careful to hone in on the ideas that correlate with your objectives.
- Be a Model – Participate in social media. Share your Twitter handle or blog with your students so they see how social media can play a role in shaping their professional future.
- Empower Your Students – Point them to digital portfolio tools (like Pathbrite), and encourage them to start building a showcase of their brilliant work now! If they’re in college, encourage them to start building a LinkedIn profile and building their network.