Monday, September 24, 2012

Blended Learning is Not the Only Way to Personalize Learning

Blended learning means offering a combination of face-to-face and online learning opportunities to learners. Blending these learning opportunities can contribute to personalizing learning. However, blended learning is not the only approach that personalizes learning. Personalizing learning starts with the learner. This means that learners have a stake in their learning by taking responsibility for their learning. When they own and drive their learning, they are more motivated to want to learn. In a learning environment that starts with the learner, teacher and learner roles change.

The research at the Students at the Center ( wrote nine reports on student-centered learning. Eric Toshalls, Ed.D., and Michael Nakkula, Ed.D. in one report, wrote the research on “Learning Theory: Motivation, Engagement and Student Voice” that described:

The Trifecta of Student Centered Learning

Motivation - Without motivation, there is no push to learn
Engagement - Without engagement, there is no way to learn
Voice - Without voice, there is no authenticity in learning

“For students to create a new knowledge, to succeed academically, and to develop into healthy adults, they require each of these experiences.”
Toshalls and Nakkula

Technology, especially mobile devices, allows learning to feel more personal. Everything is at your fingertips. In fact, there are thousands of new apps and online courses available every day. If a school does not offer a class, you can take it online. Textbooks are going digital which will make a difference in access to content for many learners. Learning objects and games can build skills that engage learners in the content. Learners are more connected than ever before. Being connected to the content offers opportunities for anyone to learn anywhere anytime. With so much content readily available, much of it can be a distraction. A teacher as a partner in learning can help facilitate learning.

Blending learning offers learning opportunities that are usually not available in a traditional classroom. Personalized learning is built on relationships. Educational researchers from Brown University (2000) set out to define “personalized learning” based on events occurring in a regular school day, assembling into categories that might explain how schools can organize themselves to personalize learning for all students. They identified six categories of supportive interactions across all schools, each reflecting a developmental need of students.

Reference:  Chapter 10 of the publication, “Making Learning Personal: Educational Practices That Work” by John Clarke and Edorah Fraizer

This research demonstrated how learner’s personal needs can be met as flexible options for engaged learning. They determined that when you take into account how learners learn best based on their needs, talents, and aspirations and there is a learning environment that trusts and respects each learner, the learner self-directs their learning to find their purpose and goals for learning.

“Historically, most classrooms have been ‘curriculum-centered’ rather than ‘student-centered.’ The core elements of the curriculum is most schools-textbooks and related print materials - are fixed, standardized, uniform, one-size-fits-all, but students on the other hand, are anything but uniform or standardized.” [Curricular Opportunities Digital Age. Students at the Center by David H. Rose, Ph.D and Jenna W. Gravel, March 2012]

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Personalized learning as described in the research at Brown is built on the framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that is based upon decades of brain-research and neuroscience of individual differences, human variability and on how we learn. UDL is often thought about how it relates to special education, but to dispel that myth, the UDL principles is about how we understand how every learner learns.

“Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (

If you start with the learner by considering their interests, passions, aspirations, and talents and use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles:
  • how the learner accesses content
  • how they engage with that content
  • how they express what they know
then the learner self-directs and self-regulates their learning. When this happens, teacher roles change.

Voice and Choice
Being connected to technology does not always mean the learner has a voice and choice in what and how they learn. The culture of traditional school with bell schedules, pacing guides, and standardized tests doesn’t allow for flexibility in instructional practice. There are blended learning environments that offer multiple stations with highly structured rotation schedules and opportunities for teachers to provide intervention strategies based on data. In most cases, these rotation schedules are fit into existing bell schedules. Just putting students in front of a computer or mobile device that keeps track of performance based on algorithms is not personalizing learning. The teacher or the technology “personalizes” the learning for the learner.

When you use Universal Design for Learning principles for all learners, they have a voice in choosing how they access, engage and express the content. In a structured, blended learning environment, the teacher manages the schedules and uses data to provide intervention strategies. Blended learning can contribute to a personalized learning environment if there are flexible schedules and learners are involved in the design of their learning.

Partners in Learning
Maybe it’s all about semantics. Change the word “student” to “learner” and think about the teacher as a guide or facilitator of learning. Being a student implies that learning starts with the curriculum and is done to you. Being a learner means that learning is self-directed and can happen anywhere and anytime. As a partner in learning, the teacher is a co-designer and co-learner with their learners. Terms tend to get lost in translation because “personalized” means something different to different organizations. Consider that learning is “personal” when it starts with the learner. A personalized learning environment can be where the teacher is a partner in learning with their learners if learning starts with the learners.

Does “flipping the classroom” personalize learning? Flipping the classroom means that teachers are uploading their lectures and content for students to review, study, and learn outside of the classroom. This leaves the classroom time to discuss, experiment, and collaborate on projects. Flipping the classroom is still teacher-directed but it is moving in the right direction. Learning is more collaborative and starting to be less passive. Learning needs to be active so it is challenging, rigorous and engaging. To have learning more active, teachers and learners as partners in learning can co-design lessons and assessment strategies and flip lessons together. They can use assessment as learning to reflect on their learning as it happens instead of waiting until a quiz or end of year test.

All of this can happen more effectively when each learner has technology that provides access to the content with a teacher as a learning guide. Technology can support assessment as learning in multiple forms: games, learning objects that provide ongoing checks for understanding, publishing online, collaborative projects, and reflection on evidence of learning as ePortfolios. Technology can engage learners in the learning process so they own and drive their learning. Personalized learning environments start with the learners, not the curriculum nor the technology.

Consider starting with the learners who co-design how they blend online and face-to-face learning with their teachers as partners in learning.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Blueprint for the Race to the Top - District Competition (RTT-D)

The top priority for the U.S. Department of Education’s new Race to the Top-District (RTT–D) competition is to create personalized-learning environments to bolster student achievement:

Absolute Priority 1: Personalized Learning Environments (PLE).
To meet this priority, an applicant must coherently and comprehensively address how it will build on the core educational assurance areas to create learning environments that are designed to significantly improve learning and teaching through the personalization of strategies, tools, and supports for students and educators that are aligned with college- and career-ready standards or college- and career-ready graduation requirements; accelerate student achievement and deepen student learning by meeting the academic needs of each student; increase the effectiveness of educators; expand student access to the most effective educators; decrease achievement gaps across student groups; and increase the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.

We are getting requests to support RTT-D applications from around the country based on our work with personalizing learning. Our discussions with the contact persons in charge of federal programs at many districts and consortiums of districts, made us realize that the term “Personalized Learning” seems to be confusing. Some believe it is all about the technology and adaptive courseware. Others think that blending learning on-site and online is all you have to do to personalize learning. Technology does play a role but it is not the only role. A 1:1 program and BYOD (Bring your own Device) option allows learners to take more responsibility for their learning. However, just putting technology in everyone's hands doesn't mean that learning is personal or learners are learning. Personalizing learning means teacher and learner roles change. The environment looks different. It is a system-wide transformation and culture shift.

We are also talking to districts where they have already had the conversations about personalizing learning starting with the learner. Their conversations revolved around our chart on Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization and the three stages of personalized learning environments
Created by Bray & McClaskey - Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

These districts have told us that these conversations have been so important and helped them with their decisions. These RTT-D applications represent not only a lot of money your schools will receive but a huge commitment and work from all stakeholders in your schools and community.

Four Year Plan to Build a Sustainable Personalized Learning Environment

Since we have years of experience as technology integration coaches, change agents and have facilitated lesson and project design that incorporated these new teacher roles, we know how long it takes to change existing practice. We have seen schools that have purchased lots of technology, but do not provide sufficient time to implement the initiative. In some cases, if the results were not immediate, the initiative was ended and a new one started. The RTT-D competition allows for building a sustainable system over a four year period. We know it takes at least four years to make real change. Personalizing learning can incorporate many of your existing initiatives or a redesign of a combination of what you are doing. In some cases, it will be a complete redesign.

This takes a process, a common language that everyone understands, a shared vision that involves all stakeholders, and an action plan detailing the steps to transform teaching and learning. We designed a four year plan that supports teaching and leading in the application. We work closely with your leadership team to integrate our services across the four year plan.

Created by Bray & McClaskey Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 UnportedLicense.

We provide you the process, research, and materials to guide you as you, your teachers, and your learners personalize learning. We have a process that starts with Stage One pilot projects and train the coaches. Each new pilot is brought on systematically across the stages that best meet the needs of your community. We assist you in building a community of practice so teachers and leaders can develop a common understanding of what personalizing learning means. We facilitate the conversations about what is and isn't working, do action research, encourage reflection and sharing as a collaborative process to support each other.

Professional learning opportunities need to be job-embedded and available anytime, anywhere. Our job is to help you build the community that is based on trust and respect. We support your coaches and teacher leaders who can make this change happen. We know how to connect the dots not only to the research, people, and schools who are transforming learning; we also connect the dots of your initiatives and programs to personalized learning environments. 

Moving to a personal learning system is a huge task. Teachers want the best for their learners. If teachers have the support, resources, time, and flexibility to innovate, they will do what is best for their learners. They want to make a difference in children’s lives. If all stakeholders in the community create a sustainable shared vision of personalized learning that encourages creativity and engagement with learners who take responsibility for their learning, then the implementation of the vision and plan over a four year period will work for every learner so they are college- and career-ready.  


Use the contact form to request the pre-assessment survey. The information in the pre-assessment can help us determine your readiness to transform teaching and learning in a personalized learning environment. We want to make the process as easy as we can for you. You can email us ( if you have questions.