The problem with personalized learning is that it's, well personal. It's an approach not easily described because it is, by its very nature, impervious to simplified labels.
At its heart, personalized learning acknowledges that every student comes equipped with a natural, inexorable urge to learn and explore. All you need to do is observe children deep-diving into their latest obsessions to see what they are capable of when the act of learning is presented on their terms.
Today's students are already harnessing emerging technologies to explore their myriad interests outside of the classroom, and they expect the same fluid and self-empowering experiences in their academic lives to drive their own educational destinies.
But what does it mean on a day-to-day basis when teachers work with students to develop personalized learning experiences? The hypothetical example below follows Heather, a middle school science teacher who uses technology to create personalized and engaging lessons, and Kevin, a tech-savvy 12-year-old, through what their typical day might look like.
Before heading to school, Heather performs a final check-in from home. She reviews a few last-minute updates from students, puts the finishing touches on her genetics video before posting, and returns emails from her principal and other staff members. She also scans her lesson plans for the day to make sure she has everything ready.
Kevin wakes up and — after checking his smartphone — notes that he needs to touch base with his friend Chris in science class about their genetics experiment.
Heather completes her final preparations for class, including modifying a Google Slides presentation that she will share later.
Before catching the bus, Kevin watches his teacher's genetics video. He's a little confused, so he stops in the middle and starts over again. He's still not sure he understands, so he pastes the URL of a website recommended by his teacher into his phone's Evernote app for later perusal.
During Heather's first-period class, students watch her presentation and then work in groups to complete a shared Google Docs file. She has Chromebooks for most of her students, and the rest use Android tablets.
Kevin's math teacher has flipped his classroom, so the students are working in small groups on a project illustrating non-linear functions. They have decided to create an animated presentation and have set up their project plan in Google Tasks. Because Kevin is good with technology, he is responsible for developing the presentation based on the group's script.
Heather spends her prep period in the teacher's lounge, grading student work and researching for future lesson plans.
In social studies, Kevin participates in a small-group discussion on current events. He was responsible for reading the news that day and developing some good discussion questions for his group. They summarize their thoughts in an online document, then read and respond to the discussions other groups have posted.
During third period, Heather's science class conducts a videoconference with a local expert on genetically modified organisms. Kevin and his classmates have been researching the topic and have prepared questions they would like the expert to answer.
After grabbing a bite at the local deli, Heather has a quick virtual conference with a parent of one of her students. Concerned that the student is falling behind, she reviews the student's latest work on Google Drive with the parent to determine a plan of action. Meanwhile, Kevin checks his phone for messages and is reminded that he needs to talk to Chris about their science project, so he texts him a request to meet in the lunchroom. They text the rest of their group for an impromptu meeting to set up a time to work on their project.
For English class, Kevin picks up reading A Wrinkle in Time on his phone from where he left off last night on his tablet. As directed by his teacher, Kevin inserts questions and predictions into the e-reader to use later when his group develops their project about the book.
Rather than lecturing at the front of the class, Heather moves from group to group as she teaches. She carries a lightweight tablet from desk to desk, interacting with her students and showing examples to help them better grasp concepts.
After school, Kevin attends a science club meeting to help plan an activity for next month. They use SurveyMonkey to create an online survey and send it out to all club members to find out what they would like to do.
Heather bookmarks the websites and other documents her students will need for the next day. At home, Heather's students can access their work through Google Docs and complete any homework.
After school ends, Heather stops by Starbucks, where she takes a few minutes to hop online and respond to student emails, do a bit of lesson planning and email a few parents.
Before dinner, Kevin spends some time playing Minecraft and is inspired to create and post a short video explaining how to overcome a common obstacle.
After dinner, Kevin checks out a tutorial on functions and, feeling like he understands the concept a little better now, works for a while on the math project.
Before heading off to bed, Heather finishes her day by relaxing on the couch watching TV and participating in a Twitter #edchat. She also explores some new tools to use in class.
Students were born to learn. By providing as many choices and chances to learn as possible — aligned with their unique abilities and interests — personalized learning allows students to yoke their inherent penchant for absorbing information to academic standards.
Dale Basye is the author of Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology. Connect with him on Twitter via @Go2Heck.