Personalized learning versus individualized learning

Up until recently I was guilty of using the terms “personalized learning” and “individualized learning” as if they were the same thing. Although I had suspected that some people made a distinction between the two, I hadn’t delved into the difference. With the increasing use of “personalization” as a term that augments or replaces “blended learning,” the existence of a generally agreed upon definition is necessary, and the distinction between individualized and personalized becomes increasingly important. With this in mind, I found that among the valuable presentations at the recent NAIS summit was Scott McLeod’s discussion exploring personalization versus individualization in education. Based on the response to his presentation, and my checking a bit further, his interpretation appears to be accepted, and it’s worth posting here and exploring further.

The basic distinction is that individualization entails the school or teacher having different options for different students, and choosing options that they perceive to be best for individual students. Students are no longer moving through the material as a whole class, or engaging with the same material in the same way as the entire class, but the choices are directed by the teacher. Personalization, on the other hand, requires that students are actively engaged with their learning, and not simply accepting the learning modes and materials that the teacher provides. For example, in individualized instruction “The teacher or software accommodates learning needs for the individual learner.” The personalized version is “The learner connects learning with interests, talents, passions, and aspirations.” (The quotes are from this chart on personalized learning.)

I’ve sometimes heard the idea simplified to “personalization means students choose” (their learning paths, materials, etc.), with the associated understanding that “personalized” is better than “individualized.” But I don’t think that’s quite right, for two reasons. First, adaptive content and software should be helping students by delivering what they need in ways that the student may not realize. The student may be getting a math problem wrong but not know why; a good adaptive math program will identify the problem and provide the feedback to help the student learn the concept. That may not meet the threshold of student choice, but it is undeniably valuable.

Second, in the large majority of cases the teacher must be involved with the student in ways that may expand or constrain the student’s choices to be educationally appropriate. The student may choose, but the student doesn’t have total control.

If I am cooking dinner for my 14-year-old niece and her 7-year-old brother, I am likely to individualize some food choices. She may like the green salad while he likes the carrots as his vegetable. But if I give them total choice about what to eat for dinner, they are likely to skip the vegetables and go straight to dessert. Instead of either telling my niece and nephew exactly what they are eating, however, or letting them choose whatever they want (the two extremes), I can engage them in a discussion about what they want to eat. Then we shop and cook together. I make sure they have had a good dinner because they have chosen and prepared it—within the guard rails that I provide.

See further ideas on this topic at Scott McLeod’s site, Dangerously Irrelevant and at Personalize Learning.