Personalized Learning: Addressing individual learning needs guided by social others – Shraddha Ghumre

Learning as a natural human activity is moulded by personal experiences and cognitive awareness. It is also shaped and influenced by personal biases, opinions, cultural contexts, and the social environment of the learner. Learning can, in simple words, be stated as a stable and persistent change in the cognitive sphere and the being of the learner. In other words, learning is what a person is capable of knowing and doing. Such a transformation is a collective pursuit. Learning happens when an individual interacts with others to share knowledge and skills. Understanding learners’ micro and macro contexts, therefore, is the first critical step in designing a learning experience that will work well for them individually.

The ‘learning context’ includes goals and motivations, and also the capacity to pay attention, memory, and emotional state. Learning is not a purely mental activity: all learning is embedded in its social, cultural, and historical context. Learning happens in the brain, the body, and beyond. “Brains are in bodies, bodies are in the world, and meaningful action in these worlds is in large part socially constructed and conducted (Learnjam, 2021).”

We learn by paying attention and building networks of knowledge. The world is full of stimuli that we somehow need to selectively filter and pay conscious attention to. What we do know is that by filtering, attending to, and connecting the stimuli we encounter. We reinforce and consolidate networks of knowledge in our long-term memory. These networks are known as ‘mental models’ or ‘schemata’. These ultimately guide our understanding, decisions, and actions. The brain has limited processing power and not all motivation are equal.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, by Wise Droid, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Tech-enabled learning ecologies

In the current learning ecologies, students are navigating an ever-expanding virtual space and are encountering interesting resources, mostly by serendipity. This is the beginning of what is called Personalized Learning. By acknowledging that students are autonomous learners now, to a great measure, educators are acknowledging the fact that a standardized approach to teaching-learning processes might not be able to answer the demands of this century.

The use of tech-enabled learning has significantly enhanced the potential of personalized learning by opening up new possibilities for learners. In one of the influential books, J. Michael Spector made a categorical point: “The need to effectively integrate technologies into learning and instruction is becoming an imperative for schools, universities, and organizations that wish to remain on the leading edge of effective technology use.” The pandemic has made it a reality. A number of recent studies have pointed out the same. A systematic literature review of personalized learning terms ( that analysed 56 relevant studies based on the research protocol found that adaptive/personalized learning has become a fundamental learning paradigm in the research community of educational technologies.

What is Personalized Learning?

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of personalized learning. It appears in different forms and these forms are understood as different approaches that are situated on a continuum – from teacher-led classrooms to student-centered classrooms, and with ‘hybrid’ approaches present somewhere in between. Although the definitions vary, there is a consensus on some key aspects like learner-centricity, flexibility, and learner responsiveness that underpin all personalized learning approaches (Holmes et al., 2018).

The core idea of Personalized Learning presumes that each student is unique and learns differently.  If that is so, learning will become a self-directed process if students can understand how they learn, own, and drive their learning themselves. It also implies that a student’s learning needs, interests, and capabilities determine the pace of learning. Personalized Learning strategies, therefore, have several potential advantages over conventional standardized learning methods. It emphasizes that learning is active, and knowledge is built on top of the learner’s context and experiences; the core value behind constructivist learning theories.

Personalized learning prioritizes a clear understanding of the needs and goals of each individual student and the tailoring of instruction to address those needs and goals. These needs and goals, and progress toward meeting them, are obvious and easily accessible to teachers, students, and their parents/ guardians. These are also frequently updated to respond to the sheer nature of learning as a dynamic process.

A key aspect of personalized learning environments is their ability to offer learning as per the choice of the learner. While practitioners of education would not deny the importance of choice and the voice of the learners in their own learning, ‘choice’ as a construct might be a little difficult to understand and implement. In this context, scholars of the theory of self-determination provide a good ground for unpacking ‘choice’ in personalized learning environments. According to them, the mode and structure of ‘choice’ should be such that it allows learners to recognize their learning preferences and presents them with learning activities that are challenging enough (in the right amount and direction). The activities should also be able to provide appropriate multidisciplinary and multicultural learning experiences to the learners.

It is important here to also recognize the difficulties this presents for the practitioners and designers of personalized learning environments. Some of these challenges relate to integrating the right blend of resources with a deep understanding of how intellectual capabilities develop in a child and a theory on the relationship between subject instruction and cognitive development. These questions are not easily answered. Thus, designing or imparting any personalization of learning requires a strong pedagogical framework; a foundation for sense-making that draws from the theories of how knowledge is produced or built upon.

The pedagogy of personalization should address how students learn, what students learn, and how we assess what their learning needs are. This promotes a solution based on choice: more ways to learn; more subjects to choose from; and more flexible study integrated through an online personal learning space. It offers a wider variety of resources, software, communication tools, and assessment tools that learners can access anytime, anywhere.

In this article, I will discuss the socio-cultural approach to educational theory and technological frameworks that can afford teachers and students some insights and guidelines consistent with personalized learning. We discuss three core aspects in this regard, discussing how children learn, what they learn, and their achievement vis-a-vis learner’s needs.

Learner-centered aspects: How children learn

Children learn with almost everything present in their immediate environment. They learn with people, they learn with things, they learn by co-constructing theories of the world; of their immediate environment with the social others, and with things that they appropriate as epistemic affordances. The proponent of the Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development, Lev Vygotsky proposed the theory of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). ZPD recognizes this capability of the environment and the people/ peers present in the environment in the construction of knowledge. From a Vygotskian personalized learning pedagogy viewpoint, ‘the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it’ (Vygotsky, 1986).

Let me unpack how this pedagogy applies to personalization. Let us take a learning activity designed within a collaborative and cooperative action paradigm. During this collaborative action, the ZPD for a learner is defined as the difference between the learner’s cognitive state (in terms of her learning level) and that of her more capable peer.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, by Putukas01, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cognitive growth requires the learner to replace her existing learning state with a qualitatively new one. The key pedagogical focus of instructions will thus be to understand the meaning of assistance provided by the more capable peer in relation to an individual learner’s learning over a mere transmission of competence. This will require the learner to be an active participant and any assistance or instruction to be personalized to the learner’s ZPD through collective action like collaborative dialogue through scaffolding and/or feedback. At its core, is the assumption and proven theory that a variety of cognitive processes operate only during social interactions and not solely within the learner. This interplay of the learner with the environment and the more knowledgeable peers creates a ZPD that once internalized will become part of the learner’s independent cognitive achievement. This achievement, in which all the basic intellectual processes take part, must be viewed as a function of the learner’s total growth (cognitive + socio-cultural) affecting not just the content of learning but also her method of thinking.

Knowledge-centered aspects: What Students Learn According to the Vygotskian perspective, what students learn must determine to an extent how they learn it. Accordingly, disciplinary learning or scientific concepts are the product of one’s experiences and are situational, empirical, and experiential and arise from the spontaneous concepts one discovers from her interaction with the immediate environment and through communicative actions with her peers. Disciplinary learning gradually transforms the structure of spontaneous concepts gained through these interactions and aids in an ascent to higher-order trans-disciplinary thinking. Instructions should therefore result in the mastery of meaningful and broadly transferable disciplinary/ scientific knowledge and appropriate strategies relevant to the context. The pedagogical approach thus translates as a method of inquiry that connects the subjective, authentic, and personal interests of learners.

Assessment-centered aspects: Learners’ Achievement vis-a-vis her Learning Needs

The Vygotskian perspective is critical of an assessment practice that targets knowing what a learner has already achieved or learned. In this argument, what the learner already knows and is capable of demonstrating during an independent activity, for instance, an examination gives no indication of the appropriate interventions to enable the learner’s progression to the next developmental level. A learner’s progression to the next/ higher level of her cognitive development can be scaffolded using a model of assisted assessments. In assisted assessments, a learner’s potential to progress to a higher cognitive state is revealed through the assessment activity. What is noteworthy in this model of assisted assessment is its potential to be indicative of the ZPD of the learner. Cognitive development thus proceeds as a spiral passing through the same point while advancing to higher cognitive levels. Two strands of assessment related to the ZPD of a learner are most important in this regard: dynamic assessments and formative assessments. Portfolio assessments might also play a major role in assessing the metacognitive development of a learner.

Let us understand these assessments in the subsequent section:

A dynamic assessment provides a diagnosis of learning difficulties and prediction of the learning potential of a learner and in this way, it represents an assessment of the ZPD for a learner. Mediation during the assessment is associated with improved performance or an approximation of a learner’s capacity on task. Dynamic assessments aim to optimize assessment so that it better represents the learner’s potential or her ability to learn on a task in contrast to what she has already learned.

Aformative assessment occurs within the ZPD of a learner during collaboration and is thus concerned with a learner’s responsiveness to instructions or constructive dialogue. Although innovations during learning will depend on the quality of dialogue, learning can always be improved while it is happening. A formative assessment from a Vygotskian perspective should allow learners to be able to plan their learning, identify their strengths and weaknesses, target areas for remedial action, and develop transferable skills with the contribution of peer instructions on subsequent tasks.  Effective formative feedback will increase learning gains for a learner.

A learner’s ability to use concepts in new learning contexts happens only if the learner has been able to identify with the value of the concept so that it can be translated to newer application areas. Only then will the learner be motivated to utilize it in new situations. Here learners are more likely to demonstrate a higher level of appropriation of concepts with varying levels of mastery.

In this approach, student portfolios serve as an authentic tool with their authenticity maintained by encouraging a learner to contribute her ideas to the discussion rather than present correct answers. This way, they are important in realizing a learner’s abilities to work on new tasks within her ZPD.

Image: Flickr, by Sandra Schön, CC BY 2.0

E-portfolios offer a collaborative space that allows learners to participate in the design stage by exploring ideas and concepts that involve complex processes modelling creativity, reflection, and new modes of learning. A portfolio assessment framework is particularly useful for transdisciplinary projects. Having said this, the importance of a capable peer as an assessment parameter should be ignored at no cost in this approach. With the coming of more progressive approaches like Personalisation, we are transitioning from an accession metaphor to a participative metaphor of knowledge construction. We need increasing acceptance of the fact that want to access the right to think what they want to and in their own ways. If we accept this, the knowledge becomes more dynamic, and the ways of knowing more plural.  This dynamism of knowledge and epistemological pluralism are productively mediated by technology in personalized learning environments. If technology and the resulting personalization are being referred to as disruptive innovation, it is rightly so. Personalization has given much-needed primacy to the learner’s voice, commensurate with the egalitarian goals of education and holding the potential to transform the current monolithic education system into one based on individual learner needs.

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