‘Education is something that we create for ourselves’: Personalized learning and connected learning

We need, first, to take charge of our own learning, and next, help others take charge of their own learning. We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us, and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves. (Downes, 2010)

Note on spelling: I have interchanged Australian and US spellings throughout this post.

Personalized learning is an approach whereby students are supported to individualize their learning experiences to address ‘specific learning needs, interests, aspirations or cultural backgrounds’ (Abbot, 2014b). Personalized learning is related to a range of concepts including individualized learning, customized learning, differentiated instruction, inclusive teaching, adaptive learning and programmed instruction. Connected learning is underpinned by personalized learning as it is strongly student-driven and based on the interests of the learner (EDUCAUSE, 2013; Ito et al., 2014).

“Granting students control over the context of their learning, results in students being able to personalise their learning. They personalise by selecting the other learners in their network. They personalise by selecting the tools they use and the formats of the content they interact with. They personalise their learning by not only having ubiquitous access, but also by choosing when to use it. They personalise their learning by controlling how their learning is presented, the format, the form and the location it is stored. We need to develop learners who are skilled at personalising their learning, as the changing nature of knowledge, means this is a fundamental skill for today’s workforce.” (Olsen, 2011)

The elements and principles related to personalised learning in a connected learning context are presented below:

Elements & principles of personalised learning Image by author.

Elements & principles of personalised learning. Image by author.

Personalized learning is a reaction against standardized, mass-produced and one-size fits all education. It reflects the evolution from closed to open and distributed systems demonstrated in this list from Wily and Hilton (2009) :

  • Analogue to digital
  • Tethered to mobile
  • Isolated to connected
  • Generic to personal
  • Consumers to creators
  • Closed to open

Gerstein frames this as a shift from Education 1.0, to Education 2.0, to Education 3.0. She argues that ‘Education 3.0 is a more of a heutagogical, connectivist approach to teaching and learning. The teachers, learners, networks, connections, media, resources, tools create a unique entity that has the potential to meet individual learners’, educators’, and even societal needs. Education 3.0 recognizes that each educator’s and student’s journey is unique, personalized, and self-determined (Gerstein, 2014).

 K-12 versus higher education

Personalized learning is a commonly accepted approach in K-12 schooling where it is ‘intended to facilitate the academic success of each student by first determining the learning needs, interests, and aspirations of individual students, and then providing learning experiences that are customized—to a greater or lesser extent—for each student’ (Abbot, 2014b). This approach is related to inclusive teaching (Department of Education, Training and Employment n.d.), and it is underpinned by the distinction between equality and equity i.e. rather than treating students the same (equality), it is fairer to treat them according to their needs (equity). This might entail creating a different program for students belonging to disadvantaged groups as a form of positive discrimination and equal opportunity.

Personalized learning is also related to differentiation, which is regarded as ‘the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible, but it does not entail the creation of distinct courses of study for every student (i.e., individualized instruction) (Abbot, 2014a). The nuances between personalized learning, individualized instruction and differentiated instruction demonstrates the tension between personalization for groups of learners, versus personalization for individual learners. This difference is also seen in the distinction between learner-centred (personalization) and teacher-centred (differentiation and individualization) approaches (Bray & McClaskey, 2012).

In higher education, the idea that learning should be personalised for groups of learners is more accepted than the idea of personalising for individual learners. This is probably because higher education more often assumes a one-size-fits all approach, as opposed to K-12 schooling where the teacher’s responsibility is to develop individual students to their fullest potential. In K-12, teachers get to know individual students in a way that is not usually possible in higher education due to the limited time available to spend with students and the other demands on academics such as research and service.

How can learning be personalised and individualised at subject level?

Below I have represented the range of choices that students might be offered in a connected learning subject (by subject I mean an individual course or unit rather than a full degree program). For instance, students might choose mode of study, learning activities, topics, content, resources, assessment parameters, pace, time and space. They may choose their personal learning environment (PLE), personal learning network (PLN) and the range of technologies they use (BYOD/BYOT).

Personalised earning choices. Image by author.

Personalised learning at subject level. Image by author.


In allowing choice, it is essential that educators support students in becoming self-directed and self-regulated. Many students are accustomed to a passive learning environment where there is no choice and where they regard the teacher as the expert. These students will initially need the safety and security of scaffolded learning. For instance, in an inquiry learning approach, students may initially work within teacher-directed structured inquiry, and gradually move towards student-directed open inquiry.

The range of choices to personalize is also dependent on the teacher and affordances of the system to offer and manage choice. Many teachers in higher education are not equipped or empowered to enable choice, as they are bound to, and conditioned by, a system that privileges standardization and conformity (Lupton, 2013). For example, to the horror of many of my colleagues, I allow my Masters students to choose their own due date for assignments. I have even experimented with allowing them to choose their own assignment weightings! This is counter to university policy that requires due dates and assignment weightings to be predetermined in subject outlines.

Personalising learning also necessarily involves personalising teaching. As I document elsewhere on this blog (Lupton, 2014), I have abandoned my University’s LMS in favour of a suite of social media as I felt that the LMS stifled my creativity and self-expression as a teacher. Taking this step in personalising my teaching made it easier to for me to experiment with ways to enable my students to personalise their learning. One outcome of breaking free from the LMS was my decision to modularise a subject to allow students to undertake it outside of the normal semester structure, thereby choosing the time and pace of their learning. As I wasn’t bound to the LMS, it meant that I could offer the modules throughout the year including in the summer break.

However, personalising learning and teaching requires an understanding and application of contemporary pedagogy and curriculum approaches such as connected learning and inquiry-based learning as well as an understanding of the affordances of social media and related technologies. I would argue that many teachers in higher education are not equipped with the necessary knowledge and experience in these areas, nor are they willing to take risks, least they suffer poor student evaluations. As I point out in my article ‘Reclaiming the art of teaching’ (Lupton, 2013) personalising learning and teaching is also counter to the homogenised, standardised approach which aims to limit risk and seeks to ‘teacher-proof’ the curriculum.

In my experience, the personalisation offered to students in university subjects is generally limited to a choice from a range of assignment topics provided by the teacher, and the availability of recorded lectures so that students can choose whether to attend in person or to view the recording. Of course, many students create their own informal learning experiences by forming study groups, joining online interest-based and professional learning communities, using open educational resources and undertaking MOOCs. However, this self-managed and self-directed informal learning is not necessarily recognised or encouraged by higher education institutions.

In higher education, personalized learning is a relatively new concept. For instance, a search in the NMC Horizon higher education reports 2012-2015 for mentions of ‘personalize’ reveals a huge leap from 4 to 42:

  • 2012 – mentioned 4 times in relation to tablets and apps
  • 2013– mentioned 18 times in relation to learning analytics, MOOCS, BYOD (mobile)
  • 2014– mentioned 17 times in relation to hybrid/blended learning, learning analytics, adaptive learning and student transcripts
  • 2015– mentioned 42 times with an entire section on personalised learning (p. 26). Also mentioned in relation to learning analytics, adaptive learning, competency-based learning, BYOD (mobile)
Growth in mentions of 'personalize' in Horizon reports 2012-2015

Growth in mentions of ‘personalize’ in Horizon reports 2012-2015. Image by author.

As evidenced by the NMC Horizon Reports, the higher education discourse often mentions personalized learning in relation to technologies such as online learning, learning analytics, adaptive learning and BYOD/BOYT (mobile). Customization of learning environments, individual choice over use of mobile devices and apps, the availability of hybrid/blended learning, use of automated software such as intelligent tutoring and programmed learning can allow students to have some choice over the mode, time, space, place and pace of their learning. Learning analytics are advocated as a way to track individual student’s progress in order to improve attrition and influence learning. Adaptive learning technologies adjust to the individual based on their previous behaviour and responses, therefore each student has a unique experience, tailored to their strengths and weaknesses (Waters, 2014). Modularised and competency-based learning is mentioned as a way of each student creating their own learning pathway independent of ‘seat time’ and ‘credit hours’ according to their individual needs, abilities and aspirations (EDUCAUSE, 2014). This might also mean mixing and matching offerings from a number of educational providers.

In the 2015 Horizon report, personalised learning is classified as a ‘difficult challenge: those that we understand but for which solutions are elusive’. I agree with this assessment. It seems to me that higher education is currently tinkering around the edges of personalised learning. Higher education is so bound up in traditional lock step, standardised models that to change to an individualised, customised model would require a complete change in university culture and allocation of resources. To summarise, I regard personalising learning as a challenge due to the following reasons:

  • Teachers need to get to know student’s backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses
  • Teachers need to design curriculum that allows degrees of freedom to adjust to the needs of students
  • Many academics do not have skills or knowledge of contemporary curriculum design and pedagogies and are not fluent with new technologies
  • More time is required for both teachers and students
  • Teachers and students and have been disempowered and conditioned to expect one-size-fits-all
  • There is a heavy reliance on an LMS which provides little control to students and teachers
  • Standardization and ‘teacher-proofing’ the curriculum is encouraged through university policy and practice
  • There is a lack of recognition of students’ use of informal personal learning environments (PLE)
  • The ‘seat time’ and ‘credit hours’ model still reigns supreme

For these reasons, I think that that the main form that personalisation will applied will be in relation to ‘low hanging fruit’, i.e. automated technologies and systems such as learning analytics and adaptive learning.


Abbot, S. E. (2014a) Differentiation. Glossary of educational reform. Available:  http://edglossary.org/differentiation/

Abbot, S. E. (2014b) Personalized learning. Glossary of educational reform. Available: http://edglossary.org/personalized-learning/

Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2012) Personalization vs differentiation vs individualization. Available: http://education.ky.gov/school/innov/Documents/BB-KM-Personalizedlearningchart-2012.pdf

Department of Education, Training and Employment. (n.d.) What are inclusive teaching strategies? Queensland Government. Available: http://education.qld.gov.au/staff/learning/diversity/teaching/teaching.html

Downes, S. (2010) A world to change. Huffpost Education. The blog. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-downes/a-world-to-change_b_762738.html

EDUCAUSE. (2013) 7 things you should know about connected learning. Available: http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/7-things-you-should-know-about-connected-learning

EDUCAUSE. (2014) 7 things you should know about competency-based education. Available: https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7105.pdf

Gerstein, J. (2014) Moving from Education 1.0 Through Education 2.0 Towards Education 3.0 In L. Blaschke, C. Kenyon & S. Hase (Eds.), Experiences in Self-Determined Learning. Available: https://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/experiences-in-self-determined-learning-moving-from-education-1-0-through-education-2-0-towards-education-3-0/

Ito, M., et al  (2014). Connected learning: an agenda for research and design. Available: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-for-research-and-design/

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015) NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. Available: http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-HE-EN.pdf

Lupton, M, (2014) Why I teach ‘in the wild’. Available: https://teachinginthewild.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/44/

Lupton, M. (2013) Reclaiming the art of teaching. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(2), 156-166. Available: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/51047/

Olsen, R. (2011) Understanding virtual pedagogies for contemporary teaching and learning Available: http://www.ideaslab.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Understanding-Virtual-Pedagogies_CKC_ideasLAB.pdf.

Waters, J. (2014) The Great Adaptive Learning Experiment. Campus Technology. Available:  http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2014/04/16/The-Great-Adaptive-Learning-Experiment.aspx?Page=1

Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2009) Openness, Dynamic Specialization, and the Disaggregated Future of Higher Education. The international review of open and distributed learning(November). Available: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/768/1414






One response to “‘Education is something that we create for ourselves’: Personalized learning and connected learning

  1. Pingback: Achieving excellence - is the secret (in) curriculum integration? - Education Curated·

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