• The Personal(ized) Side of Online Learning

    by Elfi Sanderson


    img_0752-jpgYears ago while attending an educational workshop on differentiating instruction, the speaker asked us to participate in a role-playing activity. Several participants were each given a small card listing an ailment. The speaker then announced, “The doctor’s office is open.” Each “patient” came forward to describe his/her problem to the “doctor,” who responded each time, “Take two aspirin and go to bed.”

    Initially there were looks of confusion and consternation, but as the activity continued, the point became crystal clear. No one would accept or continue to go to a doctor who prescribed the same treatment to all patients regardless of the symptoms they presented; yet in education “one size fits all” was readily accepted as the prevalent model in traditional classrooms of the day—and still remains so today for many of our gifted students.

    Now, after more than a century, the face of education is changing and morphing with online and blended learning at the forefront, providing us with opportunities to engage students in new and innovative ways. With these changes comes a renewed emphasis on the needs of the individual student and a more personalized approach to teaching and learning.

    What do we mean by “personalized learning?” In their recent publication, Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended, and Competency Education (2013) iNACOL offers the following definition:

    Personalized learning is 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.

    So, what does personalized learning look like in an online environment? At first glance, an online course may look rather flat and two-dimensional. Scratch the surface of a quality online course, and you will find a rich tapestry of personalized interactions among students and teachers.

    Going back to the medical analogy, an effective doctor uses many tools before rendering a diagnosis and developing a treatment plan. The doctor puts together a profile of the patient, and based on that profile determines which treatment is most likely to be effective. Treatment options are discussed and ultimately,
    the patient and doctor choose the option that they feel will work best.

    In a digital environment, an instructor discovers initial information about his students using a variety of tools. Using data from a combination of interest surveys, subject oriented pre-assessments and direct communication via email, phone calls or Skype, the instructor creates an individual profile for each student. With frequent personalized one-on-one communication, s/he develops a rapport and level of trust that facilitates the development of appropriate academic and personal goals.

    Personalization continues with a rigorous and challenging curriculum that can be modified based on the individual student’s strengths and weakness. Just as the doctor’s treatment plan is guided by the patient’s needs and health history, so too, the online instructor can adapt the curriculum to meet the individual needs of each student. The built in flexibility of an online course allows for the student to work through course material as a pace commensurate with his/her abilities while accommodating a busy schedule. No waiting for others to catch up or classroom interruptions to interfere with the work.img_2732-jpg

    As the student moves through the curriculum, personalization is evident in the way in which assignments and activities are designed and delivered. It occurs when the instructor provides opportunities for the student to choose from a menu of activities. For example, in one Gifted LearningLinks (GLL) science course, the instructor created a series of labs for each unit, structured so that the students self-select two out of three or four labs presented. Students choose the labs that pique their interest or more closely match their learning style while still meeting the original objectives of the unit.

    Frequent, substantive feedback from instructors is key to student success in an online course. It occurs primarily via class discussion pages and one-on-one messages between students and teachers. Like a face-to-face conversation, there is a friendly give and take in which the teacher responds to the work, the student poses questions in need of clarification or provides some newly gained insight about the content, all of which informs where the instruction needs to go next. Here’s a simple example of that give and take in a pre-calculus instructor’s email response:

    I pride myself on being able to help my students stretch themselves -- no matter where they are on the performance spectrum. I apologize, in that context, for not being able to suggest any way you could improve your work on this activity. The closest place is for you to make it clear what technique you used to determine which region to include in your answer for #3 after you found the critical values -- but the fact that you included a graph strongly suggests you were looking at where the graph dipped below the x-axis. And that is really stretching on my part, so...

    Having made it clear your work is very impressive, let me try to stretch you by sharing a completely different approach to handling #5. . .

    Contrary to what many people assume, online instructors report that the communication with their online students is actually more personal, that they have a better understanding of what interests them and what assistive strategies to use as compared to working with thirty students simultaneously in a face-to-face classroom.
    In a Gifted LearningLinks creative writing class the instructor sends out weekly, personal stories about her week:

    Finally, we got rain this weekend, after the worst drought in California history…and boy was it a deluge! On Saturday, we were out doing errands (we’d decided to do a “Thanksgiving in February” complete with a turkey and pies and all the fixings… a way to hunker in and be warm) and it was WILD! Creeks ran over the road, waterfalls splashed the car, we had to stop twice for landslides to be cleared. We looked at each other, thinking, um, maybe this wasn’t the best idea. It wasn’t enough to flood the Russian River (a serious concern as we live on the 100-year flood plain), but still enough to strike awe. After picking up supplies, we stayed in, marveling at nature’s dramatic force.

    She then follows up with the next assignment. Her emails provide students a more personal window into her life while at the same time modeling the kind of writing she expects from them. In another email, when asked by a student how her writing could be improved, the instructor writes:

    I appreciate your writing with questions. You asked me how you could improve your grades. That's a hard one to answer because I know you're working hard. Your seriousness and thoroughness are evident in your work.

    ... I would counsel you to take more chances, to be more adventurous, to reach beyond what comes easily, to use your imagination.

    That might mean writing super rough drafts and having to cut most of them. It might mean trying new techniques and approaches. When writing is "willed", the result can feel labored. I know that's probably not helpful. How best to arrive at something that is a fresh expression? Sometimes you have to get out of your own way.


    Additionally, many instructors provide feedback and guidance using web 2.0 tools such as YouTube, Screencast or ShowMe. These personalized, teacher created videos provide additional explanations of concepts, augmenting the more traditional textbook assignments while building stronger teacher-student relationships. They also act as “how to” models for students to use as they create their own videos to explain newly learned concepts. Video helps more “visual learners successfully master course concepts. article-image-jpg

    Web 2.0 tools also provide a multitude of ways in which an individual student’s knowledge can be assessed and shared. For example, in a series of GLL pre-algebra classes, students create portfolios as a reference for future math courses. The portfolio as an assessment is a strong indicator of each student’s understanding of the concepts to be mastered in each instructional module. By choosing the vehicle used to demonstrate understanding, as varied as a simple word document, a PowerPoint, a digital poster using Glogster.com, a podcast on VoiceThread or a video created on Animoto to name just a few, the student is provided the opportunity to share his/her skills and knowledge in a way that it is both creative and personal.

    Personalization is a prescriptive process, much like that used in the medical community. With ongoing communication and regular check-ups in the form of formative and summative assessments, the process repeats itself in an upward spiral of increasing difficulty meeting and extending the original goals and objectives. Online learning is the perfect environment in which such a dynamic and flexible learning experience can occur.

    Elfi Sanderson is Assistant Coordinator for Gifted LearningLinks (GLL), an online program for gifted and academically advanced students from Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development.
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