Making learning personal

Have you noticed the the increased use of the terms “individualization”, “differentiation” and “personalization” ? While more prevalent in K-12 education conversations, the terms (often linked with adaptive technologies) are increasingly part of the focus within higher education. They are cited as being part of the move to more effectively engage diverse learners and help them learn what they are interested in, and need for their future.

Do you think you know what they mean? Do you feel you are able to offer one or all of these approaches in your teaching?

When I asked myself, I realized I was a little hazy on the differences between the terms and was finding the link to online learning and the power of adaptive approaches and technologies. So, to clarify I turned to my Googlebrain and found what seemed to be a useful explanation (from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology) and discovered that two were actually subsumed in one (i.e., individualization and differentiation are considered a part of personalization).

Individualization Differentiation  Personalization
 instruction paced to the learning needs of each student  instruction to meet learning preferences of different learners  instruction paced to learning needs, preferences and interests of different learners
 learning goals same for each student  learning goals same for each student  learning objectives, content, method and pace may all vary
learning progress allows faster, slower pace for each student  method and/or approach varies for each student, based on their preferences or what research has found works best for students like them  encompasses both individualization and differentiation
Personalization – “Personalized Learning”
instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) may all vary based on learner needs.

In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.

Based on my own experiences, I would say I try to offer this kind of flexibility to individual learners as often as I can but I doubt I ever fully achieve “personalization”. I don’t really see how it is possible to address all the aspects described in the definition, within a structured school system built on measurable, demonstrable, similar learning outcomes.

Many of us face increasing class sizes, increasing diversity of learners, and a growing complexity of teaching. Even in the face-to-face classrooms, teachers are hard-pressed to get to know each of their students well enough to provide appropriate flexibility of timing, approaches, and completion options. The laudable intentions of the “personalization” approach assume that every learner is able to identify what is meaningful and relevant when new ideas, concepts and content are shared. While the learner-centred interpretation of the three terms put forward by Bray and McClaskey are inspiring, I have had many students who weren’t focused enough on my course (among all the competing demands in their busy adult lives) to even want to achieve “mastery” or to take the time to monitor and reflect on their own learning.

And a challenge that is never mentioned in the articles and conversations about the benefits of personalization, is how do you keep track of what you’ve done, why, for whom, and whether and what they have achieved and how it relates to the stated outcomes of the syllabus? “Aha,” you might say. “There’s an app for that!” Technology is often cited as the answer to customizing learning for individuals.

Some practical examples of how “the machine” can identify problems (in curriculum) quickly, help to improve curriculum on the fly, and help an online instructor identify emergent or potential problems that individuals were presented several years ago by Stanford’s Daphne Koller in her popular What we’re learning from online education TED Talk. Since then the possibilities of machine-assisted teaching surround every conversation about how to help students learn and succeed. A more recent EDUCAUSE article, “How Personalized Learning Unlocks Student Success” provides a list of ways in which instructors can use machine-generated data to personalize learning activities and includes a Utopian vision of accessibility, enjoyment and positive partnerships between instructors, adaptive courseware and happy students.

If I sound a little skeptical of many of the claims of technology, it’s based on my experiences and observations. While technology makes it possible to provide amazing learning experiences and to manage the outcomes, we’re still learning how to use the tools well. The power, scope and potential of new technologies progresses faster than we seem to be able to respond – both in using those powers for positive effects and to protect our learners (and ourselves) from the potential harm and loss of privacy.


Header image: On-screen analytics @Jisc and Matt Lincoln and Teacher and learner group, @tamuc via Flickr, CCBY


Alli, Nazeema, Rahim Rajan, Greg Ratliff (Mar 7, 2016) How Personalized Learning Unlocks Student Success, EDUCAUSE review, Retrieved from

Basye, Dale (Jan. 24, 2018) ISTE Blog – Education leadership, Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning, retrieved from

Bray, Barbara and Kathleen McClaskey, (??) for Education Alberta, “Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization

Koller, Daphne (

Lam, Evelyn (Aug 31, 2016) Review:  Weapons of Math Destruction, Scientific American Blog, Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, (2010) Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology (pdf) –  (see p.12)
Note:  These periodic reports are referred to generally as National Education Technology Plans.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, (January 2017) Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education:  2017 National Technology Plan Update (pdf), (see p. 9 sidebar, Personalized Learning)

Integrating UDL in Course Design

sketchnotes - Universal Design for Learning - Giulia ForsytheI’ve been a proponent of universal design principles since I worked for a national disability research centre many years ago. As I’ve taught and written about the design of learning, I’ve tried to keep a ‘UDL lens’ in place – not always successfully. I ruefully admit that my intentions were often overwhelmed by circumstances, resulting in fewer options for learners to engage or share their learning than I would have liked to offer. I keep trying – while exploring new technologies to aid me and reading and discussing different approaches with other educators whenever I can!

Over the last few years I’ve noticed periodic resurgences of interest and discussion around the three principles of UDL and the growing emphasis on “personalization” of education and learning. (Note: to learn more about the history and development of the concept of personalization, see UNESCO’s 2012 Personalized Learning Policy Brief).

CAST director David Gordon was one of the first to explicitly link UDL and personalization with his May 2015 article “How UDL can get you to personalized learning“.  A more recent article in ASCD’s 2017 Educational Leadership journal, “Personalization and UDL: A Perfect Match” by Kathleen McClaskey reiterates many of his original points but presents the application of UDL from both a teacher and learner perspective. McClaskey and her colleague Barbara Bray have been influential in the dissemination and application of the concepts underlying personalization in education.

PDPIE course design model

PDPIE model

The strong connections between the three principles of UDL and the underlying perspectives and applications of “personalization” are also found reflected in the various “quality” frameworks that are applied to online learning design. In the upcoming BCcampus workshop, Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) – Design, we’ll take a look at how UDL principles can be integrated within a quality framework.


Gordon, David (2015) How UDL can get you to personalized learning, e-School News, Retrieved from

McClaskey, Kathleen (2017) Personalization and UDL: A Perfect Match, ASCD Educational Leadership, “Getting Personalization Right”,  Volume 74, No. 6, Retrieved from

National Center on Universal Design for Learning, The Three Principles of UDL, Retrieved from

Sharif, Afsaneh, (2016) Quality assurance designing quality online course, UBC wiki, retrieved from

UNESCO Policy Brief (2012) Personalized Learning: A New ICT-enabled Education Approach, retrieved from


So long, and thanks for all the fish…

goodbyeSix weeks has just flown by and I received the final notice from the UNSW MOOC – Learning to Teach Online on Sunday, August 16th ! Although I wasn’t able to be as involved as I had hoped, I gathered some great ideas, contributed some good resources back, and participated (lightly) in the online forums.

The primary “nuggets” I’ll take away from this MOOC are:

  • dealing with students questions by having them post in a forum and vote on which questions were of most interest – then the instructors responded to the top questions in short discussion-based videos emailed out to registered participants each week (very helpful);
  • well-organized and structured course (never felt lost – could always find forums, assignments, videos quickly);
  • collaborative Googledoc to accumulate suggested resources to support the weekly topics (easy way to involve participants!);
  • criterion (and explanatory videos) to support peer-grading of optional assignment (interesting to listen to why and how); and, finally,
  • the friendly, open supportive instructor presence established by Simon McIntyre and Dr. Negin Mirriahi!

Learning to teach online MOOCI enjoyed the flexible design of this MOOC and, although I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to complete activities and participate in the peer-feedback cycle, I found the process interesting to observe. I would think that the resulting feedback would have been very helpful but can’t be sure. I’ve been reading more about the efforts at improving the quality of peer assessments or self-evaluation in MOOCs and in the UK (Re-engineering Assessment Practices in Higher Education). I’d be curious to hear how the participants in the process felt about any improvement in their ability to assess and share?

During the final week of LTTO, Simon and Negin shared some of the demographic stats they’d collected. This MOOC (2nd one) was much more successful than the first; more participants who stayed involved (7,000) and a broader range of countries. There were:

  • 11,727 participants from 167 different countries
  • 36% were from emerging economics
  • top five countries – USA, Australia, India, United Kingdom, Russian Federation
  • most (90%) participants had at least a bachelor’s degree
They anticipate publishing future journal articles once they’ve had a chance to analyze the data they’ve collected. And it sounds as though they plan to offer the MOOC again so keep an eye on their Twitter feed UNSW ltto – (probably same time next year?)

If you haven’t already found UNSW’s COFA Learning to Teach Online project site – see  or their Youtube channel –