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Toward practical applications of personalized learning

Posted By Kevin Kelly, San Francisco State University, Friday, October 31, 2014
Updated: Saturday, November 1, 2014

Starting with a well-known dialogical dilemma

In Trent Batson's recent blog post, he presented ePortfolios in the context of personalization. He advocated moving away from difficult attempts to define a technology product and toward a common view of a personalized learning process. Along a similar vein, ePortfolio thought leader and author John Ittelson always refers to a popular analogy in his presentations. He shows a picture of blindfolded people touching different parts of an elephant and describing something different based on their perspective. Then he describes the need to reframe discussions about adopting or using ePortfolios because they can play so many different roles for so many stakeholders. Both are right—we need to restructure the larger ePortfolio conversation to emphasize learners and personalized learning.

Imagining personalized learning in a statewide context

In Ittelson's most recent position as Associate Executive Director of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative (OEI) Launch Team, the elephant was replaced by a wooly mammoth. The 112 California Community Colleges (CCC) serve over two and a half million students per year, most of whom will not reach their degree goals. The list of OEI objectives summarizes the need statements from the winning grant application itself. First and foremost, OEI is designed to help one million additional students reach an Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) over the next five years, in part to address an estimated workforce shortfall in California. CCC students truly comprise a full and highly diverse set of learners, spread across spectra ranging a) from college readiness to academically unprepared, and b) from education as primary focus to education in addition to working full time and/or caring for dependents. For such a panoply of learners, the practical application of personalized learning must be made real, and really quickly. 

In my own research on student perceptions of the higher education transfer process, every student I interviewed described non-academic challenges they had to overcome to reach academic goals. One woman attended five different community colleges before completing enough units to transfer to a university to study nursing. She attended so many different schools because they were the closest ones to the jobs she held at different times throughout her studies. Now imagine a million or more students doing the same thing—attending multiple institutions—for a different reason. Namely, at some point in the near future a million or more CCC students will be taking online courses from any number of different colleges to fill gaps made when the courses required for an ADT are not offered at their home campuses. 

If nothing else, ePortfolios offer the potential to aggregate each student's work from several campuses for self-assessment, goal-setting, counseling and other types of support. To practice what I'm preaching, though, I can't stop there. Along with its stated goals, OEI represents the potential for personalized learning at an unprecedented scale. To help students navigate structured pathways, the CCC envisions a portal architecture that includes ePortfolios alongside and integrated with a Common Course Management System. This is a good start. It's critical that ePortfolios be included, not only for OEI but also the other two simultaneous and interconnected statewide initiatives related to education planning and common assessment.

Moving the focus from products to processes

Later in that same blog post, Batson said that ePortfolios should act as a "personalized learning environment." If we continue his line of thinking, "focus less on product, more on process," then let's call it facilitating "personalized learning experiences." Just above, I described the CCC vision for a product—a technological infrastructure, which in and of itself will require a huge collective effort to put together before it can enable personalized learning. However, we haven't even touched upon the non-technological aspects of personalized learning.

To start, we need to agree on what personalized learning entails and, just like "ePortfolios," the term has different definitions. According to the Glossary of Education Reform (2014, para. 1), "the general goal is to make individual learning needs the primary consideration in important educational and instructional decisions, rather than what might be preferred, more convenient, or logistically easier for teachers and schools." A century ago, John Dewey (as cited by West, 2011) made the same call to place learners' personal growth above institution-centric efficiencies. How can the CCC do this when the combined initiatives' scale dictates seeking efficiencies every step of the way?

Seeing "both-and" possibilities

Brookings' Darrell West (2011) invoked not only John Dewey's ideas, but also Howard Gardner's focus on expanding education to allow individuals to show proficiency in multiple areas beyond the purely intellectual. He tied these pedagogical pursuits of personalization with Daphne Koller and Mimi Ito's views on using new technologies for instructional innovation. The technologies seem to have reached sufficient levels of functionality, interoperability, and ease-of-use to support personalized learning experiences that include and go beyond ePortfolios on their own. In a world where learner analytics can team up with automated messaging, the CCC plans a holistic support system that can be customized to meet many academic and non-academic needs. I am eager to see how the three CCC initiatives begin to unfold and, more importantly, how they support true personalized learning.



Glossary of Education Reform. (2014, August 7). Personalized Learning. Retrieved from

West, D.M. (2011, October 6). Using Technology to Personalize Learning and Assess Students in Real-Time. Washington, DC: Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. Retrieved from

Tags:  California  community college  ePortfolios  personalization  personalized learning 

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