A recent eSchool News contributed article, Differentiation, individualization and personalization: What they mean, and where they’re headed, which helped define personalized learning in relation to both differentiation and individualization, is a wonderful reminder that while there is broad agreement on many aspects of the definition of personalized learning, there remains an open dialog on other parts of this complex definition.

The piece cuts right to the heart of the issue by noting something I have often discussed—most of us struggle to clearly delineate differentiation, individualization, and personalization.

This struggle for a definition poses a larger question: If we cannot clearly and succinctly define our approaches, what chance do we have for successful implementation?

Much of the article squares with some of the most widely accepted and agreed upon definitions around personalization. I would, however, like to offer some additional points to consider in forming a definition around this complicated topic.

Exploring the Term “Student Agency”

The article does a great job of delineating personalized learning from individualized learning by offering that “in a personalized scenario, the teacher is no longer the sole driver of instruction—each learner now collaborates with the teacher to drive his or her learning, with the students taking a hands-on role in determining their own needs and informing the design of their lessons.”

In breaking down this definition a bit further, I’d recommend applying the term “student agency” to the outcome of students taking ownership of their learning needs. Student agency has become an increasingly popular term and discussion topic during recent education conferences.

Adding to the definition of personalized learning

To augment the discussion, I’d like to point to the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of personalized learning:

Personalized learning refers to 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) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.

Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, expanded on this definition in his article What are you Talking About?! The Need for Common Language around Personalized Learning, explaining that individualized learning consists of “learning experiences in which the pace of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘when’ of personalized learning,” while differentiated learning is “learning experiences in which the approach or method of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘how’ of personalized learning.”

Personalized learning, then, envelopes both differentiated and individualized learning, and goes ever further with the elements of student agency.

(Next page: Individualization and student pace)

Add your opinion to the discussion.